West Virginia Senator: My Residents Are Losing Faith in Government

Sen. Jay Rockefeller said the political fallout from the Elk River chemical spill is perpetuating the state’s sense of fatalism.

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National Journal
Jack Fitzpatrick
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Jack Fitzpatrick
Feb. 4, 2014, 7:47 a.m.

The chem­ic­al spill in West Vir­gin­ia’s Elk River has at­trac­ted a chor­us of com­plaints about the lack of reg­u­la­tion and ac­count­ab­il­ity be­fore and after the spill, but Sen. Jay Rock­e­feller sees a big­ger prob­lem.

The West Vir­gin­ia Demo­crat said that Free­dom In­dus­tries’ chem­ic­al spill and its bank­ruptcy fil­ing just a week later are en­cour­aging the state’s “Scotch-Ir­ish” sense of fa­tal­ism, dur­ing a hear­ing of the Sen­ate En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Wa­ter and Wild­life Sub­com­mit­tee.

There is “an Ap­palachi­an myth,” Rock­e­feller said, that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment will not look out for the state, and that com­pan­ies like Free­dom In­dus­tries can­not be held ac­count­able.

“The idea that God has it in his plan to make sure that in­dustry is go­ing to make life safe for you — not true,” he said.

Rock­e­feller said West Vir­gin­ia res­id­ents have told him they want to leave the state be­cause they have no faith that their wa­ter will be clean, either in the short or long term.

That be­lief, Rock­e­feller said, was ex­acer­bated when Free­dom In­dus­tries filed for bank­ruptcy, which he and sev­er­al sen­at­ors said could be a means of avoid­ing li­ab­il­ity for the spill.

“They will cut corners, and they will get away with it,” Rock­e­feller said.

Much of the hear­ing was fo­cused on strength­en­ing the Tox­ic Sub­stances Con­trol Act, which re­quires test­ing and re­port­ing on chem­ic­al-stor­age fa­cil­it­ies. The Free­dom In­dus­tries fa­cil­ity had not been tested since 2002. Rock­e­feller co­sponsored a Sen­ate bill with fel­low West Vir­gin­ia Demo­crat Joe Manchin, as well as Bar­bara Box­er and Dick Durbin, which would amend TSCA’s sys­tem of as­sess­ing chem­ic­al risks.

Rock­e­feller was adam­ant that fed­er­al le­gis­la­tion is ne­ces­sary to pre­vent sim­il­ar chem­ic­al spills in the fu­ture, rather than leav­ing the is­sue to state reg­u­lat­ors. That’s partly for prac­tic­al reas­ons re­lat­ing to en­vir­on­ment­al reg­u­la­tions, he said, but also to put a dent in West Vir­gini­ans’ pass­ive views.

“You don’t ac­cept the world as it is,” Rock­e­feller said. “You ac­cept it as it should be, and then you make it con­form to that pos­ture.”

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