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Knee-jerk responses should be avoided

January 18, 2014
The Herald-Star

On the surface, the leak of a chemical that led to the disruption and potential contamination of the water supply for nine counties of West Virginia would seem to be the perfect target for some new laws and regulations.

That the disruption also affected the West Virginia Legislature's 2014 session would underscore the drive to call for someone to do something.

However, we agree with Hancock County Delegate Randy Swartzmiller when he said earlier this week that all the information needs to be found first without taking some knee-jerk action that would fix something that's not actually broken, or worse, we'd add, break something that actually works.

The leak of the chemical into the Elk River, which eventually made its way to the Ohio River, could have made a less deep impact had notification come in time to make sure water intakes for drinking water systems were turned off before the chemical passed by.

Our area saw an example of this when 400,000 gallons of diesel fuel spilled into the Monongahela River from a collapsed tank in January 1988. Early warning of the passage of the slick led to water intakes in many communities, including Steubenville, being turned off and the contaminant kept out of the pipes.

In the case of the several thousands of gallons of coal processing liquid that leaked into the Elk River, there are questions about what was known and when the information was finally released to the authorities.

The chemical, MCHM, may be in a legal loophole that falls between regulation and notification requirements. Reports indicate even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn't have a standard on how much of the chemical is safe for human consumption, and testing was needed to determine the safe level before the water could be declared useable again.

That would seem to be a good place for regulators to start looking for some kind of fix. We'd also suggest that early warnings of any kind of chemical spill benefit the public interest, too.

And, we make that suggestion before the inevitable collection of civil lawsuits and other actions pile on, potentially obscuring the possibilities for real solutions to prevent a week like the one that was in West Virginia from happening again.

 
 

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