Mapping tool, policy analysis of West Virginia crisis

Posted by Evan Hansen on Friday, January 17 2014


Evan Hansen

From 1996 Switzer Fellow Evan Hansen, whose West Virginia-based firm Downstream Strategies offers environmental consulting services with a core belief in the importance of protecting the environment and linking economic development with natural resource stewardship:

Last week's chemical spill in the Elk River disrupted the supply of clean water to an estimated 300,000 people and businesses in Charleston, the state capital, and portions of nine surrounding counties. If there ever was a perfect example of how essential clean water is to a thriving economy, one only need walk the empty streets of Charleston after people were told not to use their water. Restaurants and hotels were shut down. Flights to Charleston were cancelled because pilots and flight attendants couldn't stay the night. Even the Legislature recessed.

How could this have happened? As an environmental consultant working on water science and policy issues in West Virginia for many years, the more appropriate question is: Why hasn't this happened sooner? Angie Rosser, who directs the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, wrote a particularly prescient Op-Ed in the Charleston Gazette. An article in Climate Progress sums up the weak oversight and enforcement of environmental laws that directly led to this emergency.

Failures have occurred at numerous levels. Most fundamentally, the governor and his appointees who head the state DEP have made it clear that regulation of the coal industry is burdensome and overreaching. Instead of working with the federal EPA to enforce the law, they choose to sue the EPA to force them to back off. The message to DEP employees is clear: issue permits quickly, and when problems occur, solve them painlessly.

At Downstream Strategies, we've been involved in several ways. First, we created an interactive Web map to help get information out to the public. With this map, you can add or remove layers to better understand who is impacted by the spill. And now, as agencies start to share water monitoring data, we're adding those results so people can see how clean (or polluted) the water is that was sampled near their homes.

West Virginia Chemical Leak Mapping Tool from Downstream Strategies

Second, we're working with the West Virginia Rivers Coalition and other advocacy organizations to help them understand how this spill intersects with several environmental laws: the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Emergency Planning and Right-to-Know Act, and others. Ultimately, the goal is to understand the failures that occurred and to help work with the Legislature and others to fix the problems that are discovered.

Finally, we are beginning to test people's tap water. As reported by the Charleston Gazette and confirmed in conversations with friends and colleagues in Charleston, the water coming from taps in the cleared areas is not clean.

I hope that this will be a wake-up call to state leaders to recognize the link between protecting the environment and supporting the economy, and that they begin to take the health and welfare of their constituents seriously.


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