Cathy Kunkel, fellow with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, says regulations have been tightened, but will they be followed?


Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. January 9 marks the one-year anniversary of the Elk River spill of toxic chemicals that contaminated the drinking water for 300,000 West Virginians last winter. The leak came from a storage facility for chemicals used to process coal, and it left many wondering if industrial regulations were too lax because the company responsible for the leak, Freedom Industries, were only alerted of the spill by a bad smell. Now joining us from Charleston, West Virginia, is Cathy Kunkel. Cathy is a fellow with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. She has testified in several cases before the West Virginia Public Service Commission on energy efficiency and electric utility resource planning. Cathy, so thank you so much for joining us today. CATHY KUNKEL, FELLOW, INSTITUTE FOR ENERGY ECONOMICS AND FINANCIAL ANALYSIS: Thanks for having me. PERIES: So, Kathy, describe for us what happened a year ago. KUNKEL: Yeah. So on the morning of January 9, as you said, several residents of Charleston complained to the Department of Environmental Protection about a strong licorice smell in the air, and the Department of Environmental Protection came out and discovered this was coming from a leak in a storage tank alongside the Elk River that was dumping thousands of gallons of crude MCHM into the Elk River just a mile and a half upstream of the drinking water intake for West Virginia American Water, which is the water utility that serves 300,000 people in Charleston and surrounding counties, and that was their single intake, and the water company chose not to shut off their intake, instead hoping that their filters would be able to take out the chemical, which was not what happened. At around six o’clock that evening, the water company issued a do-not-use order to all its customers, saying not to use the water because of the presence of this chemical that had gotten through their filters. And so for several days residents were without water. And then the water company told residents that they could start using the water again about five days later. But it still had this pervasive smell, and many residents ended up going to the hospital or to the doctor with symptoms of rashes or, you know, cold-like symptoms. And this state persisted for a couple of months in West Virginia of people not being able to trust the water and having the smell of licorice go away for a time and then reappear, and just a lot of misinformation and confusing information that was provided to the public about whether they could or couldn’t or whether it was or was not safe to drink the water. PERIES: Kathy, so give us an update where we are at with this bill and how are residents coping with day-to-day living in West Virginia who were affected by this. KUNKEL: You know, several months after the spill, the odor of the chemical in the water had gone. But in many cases residents still didn’t trust the tap water for drinking. And so there was a poll done a couple of months ago by a radio station that said that 50 percent of people were still not drinking the tap water, although most people are, I think, using it for cooking and bathing and other purposes. And I think one of residents’ concerns is that the only reason that this chemical was detected in the water was because it had this strong smell. And so that raised the fear of what if something spills into the river that is not so easily detectable by sight or smell and what could be in our water that we don’t know about. PERIES: One of the problems with this was that the company actually didn’t have ways to detect if there was any leakages in the plant. And EPA didn’t have strong enough regulations to make sure that certain kinds of detections were actually installed and taking place. So, now, has that corrected itself? Are there now new regulations? Are there better monitoring systems? KUNKEL: There are better regulations. The state of West Virginia passed a bill in response to this bill to regulate above-ground storage tanks. But as with any regulation, the question is whether or not the regulation will be enforced. And that is a problem that has plagued regulation in West Virginia for a long time. And even leading up to this spill, this facility was regulated by the Department of Environmental Protection in West Virginia, which has authority to enforce the Clean Water Act in West Virginia, and it hadn’t been inspected under the Clean Water Act for more than a decade. And while passing this bill to regulate tanks is definitely a good step and there’s good things in it, it’s very important that the DEP actually be funded to have enough inspectors to do their job and assess penalties on [regulations (?)] that can cover the cost of the regulatory burden. PERIES: So when this spill happened, there must have been groups of citizens rising up against the lack of regulation and contamination of their drinking water. Tell us more about the community organizing that’s going on around this. KUNKEL: Yes. So, in the aftermath of this spill, there was great public outrage and a lot of–an unprecedented level of citizen activism. Citizens were down at the capital every day lobbying for this bill to regulate aboveground storage tanks. And since then, there have been ongoing community organizing efforts. I’m part of a group called Advocates for a Safe Water System that’s really been focusing on the water utilities’ role in all of this and advocating for changes that would make the water systems infrastructure safer and protect the public from a future chemical spill. PERIES: Okay. Cathy, I really want to thank you for joining us today and giving us an update, and we’d love to follow this issue further in terms of whether regulations and standards are going to improve, not only for the citizens of West Virginia, but for all of us. KUNKEL: Thank you for having me. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Cathy Kunkel

Cathy Kunkel is an independent consultant with Kunkel Energy Research and a fellow with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. Based in Fayetteville, WV, she has testified in several cases before the West Virginia Public Service Commission on energy efficiency and resource planning. Prior to moving to West Virginia, she was a graduate student in the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California, Berkeley and a senior research associate at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. She has undergraduate and master's degrees in physics.