W.Va. legislators react to chemical spill - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

W.Va. legislators react to chemical spill

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State lawmakers wasted no time responding to allegations that Freedom Industries, the Charleston company where a chemical used in cleaning coal leaked into the Elk River Jan. 9, had been flying under the radar of government regulations.

A 1.5-inch hole in a tank at the chemical storage facility released 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, leaving about 300,000 people in parts of nine West Virginia counties under a "do not use water" order through Jan. 13, when the order began to lift by zones.

Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, said Jan. 13 he believes lawmakers should analyze what happened, but he wants to make sure they don't create a "knee-jerk" reaction.

"I think looking at an issue like this you certainly have to work your way through the issue itself," Barnes said. "From right now, it looks like it's not something legislation could've prevented."

Sen. Greg Tucker, D-Nicholas, said he believes there may have been an oversight in inspecting the tanks supplying the chemical.

"Maybe that's something (Department of Environmental Protection) needs to be involved in to inspect them and make sure it doesn't happen again," he said.

Barnes said stores in his district with water saw a boost in their weekend sales, while Charleston and area residents were flocking to other areas around the state with water.

Sen. David Nohe, R-Wood, said his county was also seeing an influx of visitors in area hotels and stores.

"People were staying through the weekend and sending water to Kanawha and Jackson counties," Nohe said. "It does your heart good to see people helping people."

Nohe said people were calling from other states asking what they could do to help and it made him "proud of (his) country."

Lawmakers themselves were in a state of flux, waiting for direction from legislative leaders as to when sessions could take place, if at all, amid the widespread "do not use" order.

On Jan. 11, Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, requested House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, form a select committee to investigate the cause of the chemical leak and recommend any necessary policy changes.

At the Jan. 10 session, Miley said he didn't see a need for legislation at the moment but rather an investigation.

Delegate Mike Manypenny, D-Taylor, said he would consider introducing a bill that would create a threshold system to trigger an alarm  once a set amount of chemical release is reached. He also said he thought companies sometimes needed "a little push."

Not only have people been affected by the water crisis, but businesses as well. In order to help businesses get back up and running, the House of Delegates has extended a helping hand. Not only will the helping hand help businesses now, but in the future as well.

Delegates also are gearing up to protect businesses if something like the water crisis would happen in the future.

Miley announced that in light of the mass amount of people without water, he and his leadership team had begun working on legislation to help small businesses in such times of emergency by providing immediate financial assistance. 

The proposed legislation will come from the House Small Business, Entrepreneurship and Economic Development Committee to develop a Small Business Emergency Relief Fund.

"Small businesses are the backbone of West Virginia, and we certainly cannot afford to jeopardize losing any because of this kind of emergency," Miley said. "A lot of small businesses during certain times of the year will have cash flow problems, so an event like this can be devastating."

The committee's chairman, Delegate Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, a small business owner himself, said the assistance could help businesses in paying for rent or utilities in times of a crisis.