CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A West Virginia Wesleyan political science professor says the state’s response to January’s nine-county water emergency should have looked more like the state’s response to a snow emergency.
“(After a heavy snow) suddenly, they’re out there with the snow plows, suddenly we’re seeing action being taken. I’m not seeing that much action in Charleston,” said Robert Rupp of the response following the Jan. 9 chemical leak on the Elk River that contaminated tap water for 300,000 West Virginians.
“Water is everyone. There’s no partisan issue on that. But, also, water is part of the primal elements. It’s earth, air and water,” he said.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, state Adjutant General James Hoyer, state Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Jimmy Gianato, state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman and other state officials joined West Virginia American Water Company officials for water quality updates in the days after the Freedom Industries’ leak of crude MCHM and PPH.
State officials and those with the Guard were involved in water-quality testing for the chemicals throughout WVAW’s extensive system that continued even on Monday. As of last Friday, Tomblin estimated the state had spent $900,000 on supplying bottled water to the affected region.
Members of the state House of Delegates are also considering legislation that would establish new regulations for above-ground storage tanks, including a requirement for annual inspections of those facilities. The Senate unanimously approved the bill last week.
However, Rupp said he perceived officials were running from the incident at Freedom Industries that left large chunks of West Virginia without usable tap water days. Rupp said it is an “outrageous” event that demanded leadership.
“You are disrupting an accepted ritual when I no longer trust the water coming out of my tap and I’m scared to death of the water in the shower,” he said.
Rupp, who was a guest on Monday’s MetroNews “Talkline,” said the long-term effects of the water emergency on West Virginia’s image and Tomblin’s legacy will depend on what lawmakers do in Charleston in the coming weeks. He said public apologies, accountability and action are needed.
“I’m waiting for someone down there to say, ‘We’re going to pivot. If we have a state that was the most lax on regulation, we’re going to make sure that, particularly when it comes to water, it’s not going to happen again,’” he said.
“They’re going (to have) to pivot and take this negative and say, ‘Now, look at West Virginia. We have guarantees in place that we didn’t have before.’”