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Spill delays next round of legislative scrutiny

January 15, 2014
By STEPHEN HUBA - Hancock County Reporter ( , The Review

Last week's chemical spill in Charleston not only stalled the opening of West Virginia's 2014 legislative session but also set the stage for what may be a new round of legislative scrutiny of industrial sites.

The spill from a Freedom Industries storage tank into the Elk River on Thursday led to a "do not use" order for 300,000 water customers in Charleston and parts of the surrounding eight counties in the Kanawha Valley in central West Virginia.

West Virginia American Water lifted the "do not use" order for downtown Charleston, including the Capitol complex, on Monday afternoon and continued to lift the ban for other, surrounding zones throughout Tuesday, said Delegate Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock.

Article Photos

West Virginia Delegate Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock, signs the paperwork necessary for him to be on the May 13 primary ballot. Swartzmiller, who is seeking his eighth term as a District 1 delegate, said last week’s chemical spill in Charleston put the new legislative session on hold for two days. (Submitted Photo)

"I showered this morning, and everything seemed fine," Swartzmiller said on Tuesday.

Swartzmiller, 53, of Chester, said the spill, in addition to inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of Charleston area residents, stalled the start of the new legislative session just as it began. The House of Delegates convened its regular session on Jan. 8, but by the following afternoon, word was spreading of a chemical leak and a contaminated water supply in the city.

"We found out by word of the mouth in the Capitol. Once the water ban was started, they did a pretty good job of getting the word out. ... It went viral pretty quickly," said Swartzmiller, who also is House speaker pro tempore.

Fact Box

Area residents help out


CHESTER - A truck bound for Charleston from Chester is bringing relief supplies to those West Virginians who are still without clean tap water nearly a week into the chemical spill emergency.

The U-Haul truck, rented by the Chester Volunteer Fire Department, Chester VFW Post 6450 and American Legion Posts 121 (Chester) and 114 (Newell), is transporting plates, plastic silverware, napkins, body wipes, bottled water and microwaveable food to the people of Dunbar, W.Va., near Charleston, said Chester fire Chief John Hissam.

Hissam said the American Legion district commander in Dunbar called him on Monday asking for help, and Hancock County veterans and volunteer firefighters "jumped right on it."

"It's just a helping hand to get them through the next three or four days," he said.

The spill from a Freedom Industries storage tank into the Elk River on Thursday led to a "do not use" order for some 300,000 water customers in Charleston and parts of the surrounding eight counties in the Kanawha Valley in central West Virginia.

West Virginia American Water finally lifted the "do not use" order for central Charleston on Monday afternoon and continued to lift the ban for surrounding zones throughout Tuesday.

But Dunbar and other areas may be without tap water for another two or three days, Hissam said.

With nearly $2,000 in donations from the American Legion and VFW posts, the Sons of the American Legion, and individuals, officials went shopping at the Sam's Club in Robinson Township, Pa., Hissam said. The store also donated $100 worth of goods, he said.

A truck laden with supplies left Chester on Tuesday and planned to make stops along the way - in Newell, New Cumberland, Weirton, Follansbee - to pick up more items.

"The truck'll be full by the time it gets down there," Hissam said.

The legislature held brief floor sessions on Friday and Monday, but no bills were introduced and no other business was conducted, Swartzmiller said. The full House was expected to convene again at 6 p.m. Tuesday, he said.

"We told members that if they didn't come in (Friday or Monday), they'd be excused," Swartzmiller said. "We didn't really have anything on the agenda anyway, so we didn't miss anything."

Most legislators, including Swartzmiller and his fellow District 1 Delegate Ronnie D. Jones, D-Hancock, were out of town for the weekend. "I was glad when I got home (in Chester) so I could get a shower," Swartzmiller said.

Swartzmiller, who rents an apartment in Charleston for the three months the House is in session, said he followed the utility's instructions-before using the water Tuesday morning-by flushing the hot water for 15 minutes and the cold water for five minutes Monday night.

Jones, 60, of Weirton, said he stayed away all weekend but planned to return to Charleston in time for Tuesday's full session. "I think it's going to put us behind because we lost two days of business," he said. "We're going to have to make it up at some point."

As for whether the legislature will revisit the issue of regulatory oversight for coal-related industries, Swartzmiller said it's too early to tell.

"I don't think anything can be done right away because we don't have all the information. ... To do anything too quickly would be a knee-jerk reaction," he said. "You don't know how to fix something until you know what's actually broke. ... Any potential legislation needs to be based on facts and not emotions. Emotions are running high down here right now."

Swartzmiller said his biggest concern is one he raised when he was chairman of the Homeland Security Committee several years ago.

"Why isn't there a plan to move the legislature when there is a crisis situation?" he said. "There's no plan for that. Instead of pointing fingers at everybody else, I think we need to look at things that we have control over. ... Right now, to up and move the legislature would be a logistical nightmare."

Swartzmiller, who has a background in regulatory compliance management with Ergon-West Virginia Inc., said there may be a role for the legislature in the aftermath of last week's accident.

He noted that after the 2006 Sago Mine disaster, in which 12 coal miners were killed, the legislature passed a law requiring certain industries to report an emergency within 15 minutes of discovery. The law, enacted in 2009, imposes a penalty of up to $100,000 on facilities that fail to promptly report an emergency.

"I don't think that's something that happened here," Swartzmiller said. "I have an understanding that things can go wrong and things need to be fixed."

Jones, who worked for the Weirton water department and is now retired, said how municipal water treatment plants respond to such emergencies may also require legislative review.

"I think we're going to have to look at that," he said.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency, has sent a team to investigate the Charleston spill.



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