Spills in the Spotlight
On Tuesday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing to review the recent chemical spill into the Elk River that contaminated the drinking water supplies of 300,000 people in West Virginia. Witnesses included Congressional representatives from West Virginia, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the Natural Resources Defense Council, and industry representatives.
Many of the witnesses spoke about the lack of information available about the chemical, whether or not the tap water was safe to drink, and the long-term health impacts of the spill. Several members of the committee discussed the need to reform chemical policy laws and to establish more stringent safeguards surrounding the protection of waters that serve as drinking water supplies, also known as source waters.
The spill at the Freedom Industries’ facility highlights how reliant we are on water that is clean and safe to drink. The 300,000 people put at risk by this spill underscore the importance of state and federal protections for our rivers, lakes, and streams. In late January, approximately 1,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the Delaware River. Also in late January, 3.5 million gallons of sewage were released from a broken pipe at a wastewater treatment plant into the Haw River located in North Carolina. On February 5th, a coal ash pond dumped between 50,000 and 82,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in North Carolina.
While spills may not happen every day, they can have a devastating impact to our rivers and public health. Laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, despite efforts to weaken and undermine them, provide critical baseline protections for our health and safety. While state protections are important, rivers and streams rarely follow state boundaries. These federal safeguards are critical to ensure that communities upstream and downstream are protected. Additionally, water infrastructure that transports and treats drinking water, controls and reduces stormwater, and treats wastewater is chronically underfunded. Ensuring that our water infrastructure functions and is maintained properly is critical to protect public health and safety. Additionally, green infrastructure, water efficiency, water conservation, and river protection strategies that maintain the natural flood plain and buffer land uses should be an integral part of investment strategies for communities.