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Robert Rupp: Blushing isn't enough

Mark Twain said "Man is the only animal that blushes --or needs to."

We will see a lot of blushing and backtracking in Charleston during the next few weeks. The speed of light will have nothing on the speed with which CEOs, bureaucrats and politicians try to distance themselves from the Elk River chemical spill that poisoned the drinking water for 300,000 West Virginians and garnered the attention of a nation.

Thomas Hobbes, that pessimistic philosopher who said, "life is poor, nasty, brutish and short," argued that humans must give up some liberty to sustain a nation-state (Leviathan) for protection.

Well, 300,000 Mountaineers did not get very much protection when Freedom Industries contaminated their drinking water that American Water Company distributed. Like the word "Patriot," "Freedom" and "American" are words that sometimes companies use when they want to wrap themselves in the flag. Such semantics, however, should not provide comfort to us, but sound an alarm -- like a restaurant advertising "Fine Food." If they have to say it, it probably is not fine.

State environmental inspectors issued a slew of violations at the unsafe storage site. Talk about closing the barn door after the horse escaped!

We hear that other states require inspection of chemical storage facilities, but that West Virginia does not -- only for production facilities. One wonders about the $20 million in state losses on $24 million of venture capital loans awarded by the Economic Development Authority to companies that promised jobs, but went bankrupt. This in a state that apparently can't afford inspections of existing companies?

And finally, to allow old storage tanks to be one and half miles above the intake for water service for 300,000 citizens? Just those two numbers alone -- a mile and a half, and 300,000 -- should have prompted questions.

But apparently not in West Virginia, where some companies and some government officials play the Mountaineer version of "Don't ask, don't tell." If we do not ask the companies what hazardous materials they store, and where, they won't tell us and we won't have to inspect effectively.

The focus now is on the 300,000 citizens who were placed on the water prohibition list, and on their political leaders and state legislators who will be on the ballot this November.

How will delegates and state senators in the impacted nine counties respond? There are grounds for concern. For window-dressing in the state capital is not confined to stores during the Christmas season.

When the current Legislature takes steps to ensure protection of water in the Mountain state, we will learn which legislators are show horses, workhorses, and hiding horses.

And voters? They may well forgive or forget this environment "incident," but history will do neither.

Rupp, a West Virginia Wesleyan College professor, is a Gazette contributing columnist.


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