Two years ago, in the aftermath of the Freedom Industries chemical leak, people rose up. In huge numbers, they crowded meetings and hearings, wrote letters, and raised their voices for reforms. They demanded change. And they got it.
Above-ground storage tanks got most of the attention — which tanks should be covered, which exempted — but the historic reforms enacted after the water crisis are about much more than tanks. They are about the power of people in democracy.
The people who stood up in 2014 gained something significant for every West Virginian. They established seats at the table for citizens to protect their public drinking water supplies.
This is a big deal. And despite rollbacks on tank regulations last year, the newly won rights of the people to be heard on their drinking water remain.
Ironically, even some of the people who pressed for changes might not know of their new rights. Maybe it’s the technical name that’s the problem: Source Water Protection Planning (admit it, you just yawned). Maybe we should call them Community Water Plans or “Protect Our Drinking Water Plans,” because that’s what they are.
Here’s how they work. Every water utility that draws from our rivers and streams is required to submit a protection plan before July 1, 2016. The plans must identify potential threats and describe how each utility would respond in an emergency. That’s the technical part.
Now for the people part, the democracy part. The law requires water utilities to involve the public in crafting the plans. Some are hosting public meetings; some are accepting comments from their customers. They have to make a good-faith effort for people to add their voices.
If it sounds like what was gained in 2014 was a “right to know,” it’s true. People now should know more about where their drinking water comes from, and have a say in protecting it. It will take an investment of time, even though time is, for most of us, a scarce and precious luxury.
When it comes to water, though, that is the price of democracy. Our water is safer when we don’t take it for granted. Getting involved in your community’s plan might be a small price to pay for big gains.
All across the state this winter and spring, utilities and contractors are working on these plans. Many have already started reaching out the public about how they can be involved. Others haven’t.
Here in Charleston, we’re hosting a public forum on Saturday, to support public involvement in source-water protection planning. There will be other opportunities, too. If you showed up in 2014 to demand that something like Freedom Industries could never happen again — and even if you didn’t — now is your chance to show up and be part of the change.
No change can guarantee that bad things will never happen again. No change can guarantee there won’t be bad actors or accidents or failures or human errors.
What should never happen again? The mayhem and fear and uncertainty endured by people denied access to safe water for days and weeks.
What should never happen again? A situation in which government at every level is caught off-guard and unprepared.
What should never happen again? Businesses and schools unable to open their doors, visitors canceling their trips and residents leaving the state for good because they’re afraid of the water.
Or that the people of West Virginia go through a crisis without knowing where to turn for information. Or that a water utility is dealing with a toxic chemical without knowledge of its dangers.
People have a right to know what’s upstream that could foul their water. They have a right to ask, “So what’s the plan?” And they have an obligation to examine, “What’s my part in it?”
It must not be forgotten that it was citizen reports of an odor in the air that first brought responders’ attention to the Freedom Industries’ disaster. How many of us cruised on the interstate right across from those rusty tanks without a thought before January 2014?
Now, 300,000 West Virginians are more aware of where there drinking water comes from. Do we look at what’s going on around the Elk River differently? Do we remember we can’t sit back and assume clean water will always be there?
We have a clear opportunity to claim our stake. Plans to protect our water will be stronger if citizen participation demands that they are. Our 2014 demands gave us new rights, rights which require our enthusiastic participation to make these changes work.