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This Time, Something Has to Change

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Below is an op-ed that appeared in the Monday, Jan. 20, Gazette.

West Virginia families shouldn't have to question whether it is safe to bathe their children at night, or send them off to school in the morning. Our state's business owners shouldn't worry that their water will keep customers away and hurt their bottom line.

Yet that's precisely what is facing hundreds of thousands of West Virginians and dozens of small business owners as they suffer through a crisis that has been thrust upon them.

A little more than a week ago, crude 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) leaked into the intake of the water treatment facility for 300,000 people. No one was spared the unbelievable news that they could not use the tap water because it had become contaminated with a toxic substance no one seemed to know much about.

We learned that, as with the case of so many chemicals, crude MCHM is not categorized as a material hazardous enough to warrant regulation or even testing to fully understand its impact on humans.

Experts rushed to develop levels for human exposure and testing and flushing protocols. Many are wondering how we knew so little about this toxic substance stored on a tributary to the Kanawha and Ohio Rivers, and whether there will be health effects.

Many are wondering why a deteriorated tank wasn't inspected for so many years and how the spill wasn't contained before reaching our faucets. West Virginians work hard and play by the rules and expect the same from every business. When a business is unwilling or unable to do so, we expect our government to hold them accountable. We should be able to provide for our families and keep them safe. There is too much at stake to expect anything less.

I join with West Virginians who reject the notion that proper government oversight chases away business or that any regulation kills jobs -- in fact, the reality which we're witnessing first-hand is that insufficient regulation unjustly cripples other businesses. The resources of every government agency should be fully brought to bear to protect the public, assist in recovery and prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future.

The first day of the crisis, I asked a team from the Chemical Safety Board to come and investigate, and made sure a recent government funding bill boosted the CSB's budget to handle this incident. Because I have heard from so many who are worried about what this chemical will do to our families long term, I have requested that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) conduct a joint study on the long-term health impacts of MCHM.

We have had too many close calls with the industrial tanks near our waterways in recent years, and we shouldn't need another wake-up call to enact protective reforms. As a start, we should adopt the 2011 Chemical Safety Board recommendations. And we should consider more legislation like the one Senator Manchin and I introduced requiring better inspection and emergency response plans for these types of facilities.

No family or business who got hit with the devastation of this spill should also have to shoulder the cleanup costs, so last week I introduced legislation that holds companies accountable for cleaning up their own messes -- and opens up government resources to reduce the impact of spills on our communities.

Even with the incredible resilience and spirit of our cooperation that we have seen this last week, it's an incredibly trying time. West Virginians have a right to demand answers, service and communication from their government at all levels. Throughout this ordeal I have been in constant contact with our federal and state officials, and will continue to demand the highest level of attention and response. If you are not getting the information you need, you should let my office know.

In the 50 years I've served West Virginia, we've been through a lot together. Mine accidents and labor disputes. Celebrations and sad times. Ribbon cuttings and parades and plant tours. We've been through it all together. And we'll get through this too.