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Officials Discuss Path Forward From Water Crisis

Reported: Apr. 22, 2014 10:04 PM EDT
Updated: Apr. 23, 2014 3:09 PM EDT

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SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. (Kennie Bass) -- Eyewitness News hosted a second town hall meeting focusing on the water crisis at the historic Labelle Theater in south Charleston on Tuesday.

A distinguished panel of lawmakers, health care workers and industry officials answered questions about what we've learned from the disaster and where we go from here.

The Jan. 9 Freedom Industries chemical spill was a body blow to the entire region, a punch that we're still recovering from.

"And I started talking to other senators, and I said, by the grace of God, this could have happened anywhere," U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said. "We just didn't know. We just assumed that everything above ground was being inspected. Did not know that non-hazmat was not mandatory or basically that maybe you couldn't go on the properties if it was a non-hazmat material. So we started working on legislation immediately.

A panel including Manchin, U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre, state epidemiologist Loretta Haddy, Dr. Rahul Gupta, State Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, and West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Director Randy Huffman gave status reports on the work they've done in the wake of the disaster, and answered audience questions about what lies ahead.

"These tanks will have to be inspected to ensure that they aren't leaking or are about to leak," Huffman said. "The secondary containment will have to have the same kind of oversight as well as the leak detection system. And that will be an annual requirement as part of the permit to operate these tanks."

McIntyre said his company was going to look at the new legislation.

"There is no commercially available gadget that you can put into a raw water intake or a system that will tell you, 'Hey you've got this. You need to do something,' " he said. "But, we're gonna look at all of the technologies that are commercially available and how we can best apply those to provide the belt and suspenders approach to our customers.

Regulating above-ground storage tanks, helping businesses which lost money because of the spill, punishing those responsible, protecting our students and who will ultimately pay for the water company's expenses were all hot topics.

"There's a lot of really good questions, but the one that's lingering with me that I don't think we have a real answer to is the image answer," Capito said. "What are we gonna do about this to restore our confidence? When I was driving in down D Street here the Happy Days restaurant has a, did y'all see it on the front? We're using bottled water. And you don't want that kind of image in front of, it just reinforces what's happened to us and how maybe we haven't coped as well as we need to to get the confidence we need."

One of the men responsible for pushing through the senate bill which calls for storage tank oversight said it's critically important that you remain focused on the problem, and that you continue to hold your elected representatives accountable for keeping our water safe.

"But the reason it passed was because of you, the public," Unger said. "That's why. I've never seen, in the time I've been in the legislature, a piece of legislation of this magnitude, pass both chambers, twice, unanimously. Not one person voted against it. And the reason for it was because you were watching. Every single step."

Manchin said he looks at the crisis and it's aftermath as an opportunity to be bigger and better.

"And to be a point, a source where we have West Virginia pride," he said. "We're West Virginia strong. We're Charleston strong. We come back better and, hopefully, people will come back and have the confidence they should have."

You can watch our town hall meeting Sunday at 4:30 p.m. on WVAH FOX 11, or watch in the Town Hall section of our website (at the bottom of the page).

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