March 01, 2015

Will we learn?

This op-ed of mine about the need for the state legislature to protect WV's water appeared in the Friday Charleston Gazette:

I was traveling out of state last January when I got an email from a friend at the Council of Churches about a chemical spill in Charleston.

At first, I didn’t think much of it or have any idea of how huge that event would turn out to be.

After all, things like that happen fairly regularly in West Virginia. A sludge leak here, a shelter in place there, a tank, a truck, a train … we kind of get used to it.

Shame on us for that.

I remember a line from Dostoevsky that goes something like “Man gets used to anything, the scoundrel.”

If there was any silver lining in last year’s Freedom Industries spill, it was in the fact that this time the effects of a disaster weren’t confined to rural people up a holler in southern West Virginia. The spill inconvenienced some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the state. Legislators of both parties had to look at signs in the Capitol warning that water was to be used only for flushing toilets.

Adversity, like wealth, is something distributed very unequally, although it tends to be concentrated on the other end of the spectrum.

That experience of shared adversity, all too rare, gave a sense of urgency last year as legislators labored throughout the session to come up with a workable bill that had pretty much universal support.

Now, it looks like the lessons of that shared adversity are in danger of being forgotten. Several bills have been proposed that would weaken protections on our drinking water.

One argument in favor of that is that the Freedom Industries spill was an outlier far beyond the norm. That’s true as far as it goes. But then the recent oil train wreck, Upper Big Branch, Buffalo Creek, Farmington, and Hawks Nest disasters were outliers too.

Come to think of it, West Virginia itself is a bit of an outlier. In the language of statistics, I think you could make the case that we’re a standard deviation or two away from the arithmetic mean.

For that matter, things like severe winter storms and structure fires are outliers of a sort. Fortunately, they don’t happen very often, but we still need snowplows and fire departments.

We hear a lot these days about improving West Virginia’s economy so that it’s easier for families to stay here and thrive. But I know of several young families that have moved out of state or are planning to because of the spill. I know plenty more who have said one more thing like that and they’re out of here. The people I’m thinking about are young, educated, smart and productive, i.e. exactly the kind of people we need more of.

We also hear a lot about making West Virginia more business friendly. However, it would be very hard to calculate the harm done to hundreds of local businesses by the chemical spill. Thousands of workers, particularly those in the service sector, lost work and wages. And these are people who don’t put their money in an overseas hedge fund: they spent all they get right here. Along with that, thousands of school children missed classroom instruction and many of these missed the only nutritious meals they were likely to get those days.

West Virginia’s tourism industry, which generated well over $4 billion in 2010, took a hit as well. Further, incidents like that, not to mention the latest mishap, make the state less attractive to new business investments, particularly those that don’t involve trashing the place.

While any piece of legislation or policy can be improved, any changes to state water laws should not come at the expense of public safety or water quality.

There are many thoughtful people who believe that water will be to the coming century as precious as oil was in the past. And water is something our state is blessed with. It would be nice to think that we’ve learned something from last year’s mess and over 100 years of the exploitation of our natural resources and people.

The jury is still out on that.

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