Two years after the Elk River spill, cronyism and mediocrity is rampant at state and local levels
By Michael M. Barrick
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – While my primary vocation is writing, I’ve been fortunate to live long enough to try my hand at a few other professions, including disaster management. In the process of working in that field, I worked as a paramedic many, many years ago, and then returned to the field, earning a post-graduate certificate in Community Preparedness and Disaster Management from the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health. I also worked as emergency preparedness coordinator for a total of about seven years for two hospitals. From July 2013 to January 2015, I worked at a hospital in central West Virginia.
While there, it was incumbent upon me to establish relationships not only in the hospital, but in the community and indeed all of West Virginia with my peers in the field. That I did. It did not take long to figure out that in the community where I was working, and at the state level, disaster preparedness was just not a priority. Our Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) meetings became known as “eatings,” not meetings, because we would fly through the exact same agenda every month without doing much of anything to address the many hazards facing our community.
In the meantime, workers were coming to our emergency department (ED) from the fracking fields. They arrived reeking of chemicals, but with no MSDS sheets. When a supervisor would finally appear, he could not provide an MSDS sheet and said that he didn’t even know what was in the fluid covering the worker, but would add, “It is safe.” Of course, that was why workers would show up in the ED with burning eyes and skin, breathing problems, and other symptoms – the fracking fluid was safe.
Seeing immediately through this BS, I understood that this was an issue for the LEPC to address with the energy extraction industry. It would not. Finally, when an energy company needed to inform us about coming pipeline construction, they were included on the agenda. Seeing the agenda in advance, I immediately sent an email to the chair, asking that the meeting be publicized, as many in the community were already expressing concern about the dangers related to fracking. He refused. When I reminded him it was a public meeting, he replied that he didn’t want the public present. He did not want the gas company upset. Plus, he added, he didn’t have enough food ordered for the public (reinforcing the idea that these were just “eatings” paid for by tax money).
I attended the meeting, and after the company’s PR, sanitized presentation, asked for a copy of it. At first, they refused. When I pointed out it was public information because it was presented in a public forum, they conceded. (This moment, by the way, is when the journalist in me kicked in again. I have never quit researching it and writing about it, and indeed finally quit the hospital so that I could write about it full time). When a company does not want the public to know what it has a right to know, I know nefarious forces are at work and must be challenged.
The point had been made at that LEPC meeting. Emergency planners and company officials were entirely too cozy with each other, and the public was not to be trusted with hearing what we were hearing. It was a display of arrogance combined with mediocrity that can – and in time, will – prove deadly for any community.
So, I decided to visit Charleston and talk to emergency preparedness officials there to find out if this experience was the exception or the rule. And I wanted to meet the people who could, ostensibly, improve the situation.
To put it mildly, I was sorely disappointed. With the exception of one official who works in the state capitol building for the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Management, my questions and concerns fell on deaf ears. As knowledgeable and helpful as the state official was, his hands were tied. He did provide a refresher course on “the Charleston way” for this West Virginia native that had been out of state a good while.
He shared a few lessons. The state’s elected officials are owned by the energy extraction industry and any attempt to challenge the industry in my community, through the local LEPC, was fruitless. He shared also that West Virginia continues to experience a brain drain of young people, as evidenced by the ages of those sitting around that LEPC meeting. And, as I had already figured out for myself, there are some serious structural problems with the way the emergency preparedness, public health and environmental agencies are organized in West Virginia, creating a serious lack of communication among and between emergency preparedness officials.
Then the Elk River spill occurred in January 2014. Shortly after that, the West Virginia Hospital Association had its annual “Visit the legislature” day. I took the opportunity to go down to Charleston a day in advance to visit with every legislator I could reach. I also visited the governor’s office to leave a letter for him.
I boldly – and likely naively – dared to suggest a few legislative fixes to every delegate and senator that would give me five minutes. I also left a letter for every legislator I could not meet.
I began by telling them that the contamination of the Elk River by the coal-mining cleaning chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol was preventable. I acknowledged that it was true that much analysis remained to be done, with an official report at least months away (as it turns out, it took the state a year to issue a report of nearly 800 pages that was mostly fluff). I shared that while a review was just getting started that there was already overwhelming evidence that numerous opportunities were missed to prevent this event from happening.
In short, I shared that the official report – known as an After Action Report (AAR) – would identify clear causes and offer corrective actions, if done properly. However, I warned, those recommendations would be meaningless unless and until the root causes which created the environment that allowed the incident to occur were addressed.
These root causes include inadequate mitigation efforts, lack of coalition building and communications, and bureaucratic gaps and overlaps. These constitute core challenges to emergency response efforts in West Virginia. Consequently, these must be addressed by the governor and legislature before the people of West Virginia can be confident that no stone is going unturned in identifying and preparing for any and all risks that threaten their life and safety.
Presently, that is simply not the case. True, there are scores of dedicated and competent individuals working within the various agencies and organizations that are responsible for responding to emergencies and disasters in West Virginia. That is all the more reason that these core challenges must be addressed. It is simply irresponsible and unacceptable that policy-makers fail to do all they can to equip and protect those charged with being the first at a disaster scene, not to mention the public they serve.
The first core challenge is the lack of mitigation activities. Mitigation – the first of four phases of emergency management – can do the most to reduce mortality and morbidity, because it will prevent the disaster in the first place. Yet, it is the most ignored stage of emergency planning due to political inertia, cost, the complexity of mitigation plans, and the public’s unwillingness to participate in or pay for mitigation. West Virginians have experienced firsthand, for too long, the consequences of ignoring mitigation efforts. The Sago and Upper Big Branch coal mine disasters are clear examples of this. The ignored dangers of Mountaintop Removal prove this. Finally, natural gas fracking presents potential threats that are well documented. Indeed, a gas company executive confided to me, “We have invented technology beyond our understanding of its impact.”
The second core challenge is a lack of coalition building and communications among and between emergency response agencies. Throughout West Virginia, LEPCs vary greatly in their readiness for community disasters. Some are well-run, such as the Kanawha-Putnam LEPC; others, such as in Barbour County, have been inactive for years. Also, statewide communication systems are inconsistent, inadequate and rarely interoperable.
The third core challenge is the startling gaps and overlaps in key emergency management sectors. Hospital regions, emergency management regions and public health regions all encompass different counties. In short, an emergency manager wanting to establish strong coalitions with colleagues will find such efforts unnecessarily burdensome. For instance, an emergency manager in Lewis County will find himself or herself working with colleagues in 10 counties in the West Virginia Homeland Security region. The Public Health region serving the county also includes 10 counties, but four of them are different than the Homeland Security region. Finally, the West Virginia hospital region in which Lewis County is located includes 14 counties, seven of which are not in the Homeland Security region. So, all told, the emergency manager based in Lewis County must be intimately familiar with colleagues in at least 17 of the state’s 55 counties. From a planning perspective, this is a nightmare.
So, this preventable event requires not only close scrutiny by lawmakers, but quick, clear and decisive action.
The following steps would go a long way towards achieving such action. First, the governor and legislative leaders must revisit the state’s AAR. It must be truly comprehensive and transparent. Corrective actions must be implemented without hesitation or fail. Higher fees for licensing and violations must be established. Stronger laws must be passed. Emergency response regions must be aligned to eliminate the gaps and overlaps. Penalties – such as eliminating grants – must be implemented for LEPCs that are not functioning as designed.
These are short-term solutions that are relatively easy to implement if lawmakers have the will to do so. They do not. In fact, though the 2014 legislature passed one law in response to the spill – the West Virginia Above Ground Storage Tank law – the new GOP-led legislature rolled back many of its provisions in 2015.
So, heavy lifting remains. Policy makers must make mitigation a priority. Only then will we stop the knee-jerk response and recovery operations. Additionally, the legislature should reward best practices and develop measures for effective coalition building and collaboration.
Will any of this occur? Not in the present political climate. West Virginia’s elected officials have been kicking the proverbial can down the road for decades, as is evidenced by our repeated and avoidable disasters. As is the state’s history, profit trumps people. Again. Always.
© Michael Barrick, 2016.
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