Water has always been at the heart of the Christian faith and heritage. From the four rivers that had their origin in Eden, to the crossing of the Red Sea, to the call in Isaiah 55: 1 for “everyone who thirsts, come to the waters,” and most notably the practice of baptism, water has been held in high esteem in our stories, our theology, and our practice. It is with great distress, then, that we see protection for our state’s water being possibly weakened by our state legislature.
Thirteen months ago our state was dealing with a chemical disaster in the greater Charleston area. Some 300,000 residents, including 60,000 children, were affected by the contamination of the water supply. At the same time the Freedom Industries tank was leaking into the Elk River, there was a similar leak near Marietta, Ohio, affecting the Ohio River.
If these were the first incidents of chemical spills, I might understand why our legislators would sense a need to reconsider the water protection bill adopted last session. However, this is not the case.
One year ago a comprehensive bill was adopted: Senate Bill 373, the Aboveground Storage Tank Act. This bill required that all tanks, nearly 50,000, would be subject to annual inspection. As of January 2015, 58 percent of all tanks had been inspected with almost 1,100 failing inspection. How many of these 1,100 tanks (and possibly more) are accidents waiting to happen? How many more tanks that have not been inspected are potential accidents?
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New legislation, Senate Bill 423 and House Bill 2574, would result in removing annual inspection requirement for all tanks. That would mean the 1,100 tanks that failed inspection would be missed. The legislation also excludes oil and gas industry tanks. Instead of protecting our water, this legislation erodes the inspection requirement, makes drinking water systems dependent on groundwater more vulnerable, weakens penalties, and creates challenges for spill response and prevention.
West Virginia is a state that has been blessed with an abundance of natural resources. One of our major resources is water, and it is one of this state’s strengths for work, play and for drinking. We, the people, need water for life.
In my seventh grade civics class we were taught that the role of government was that of “preserving and protecting” it’s citizens. One of the first ways that our state government can preserve and protect us is by preserving and protecting our water, our water sources, and our drinking water. Sadly, we have a 100-year history of “preserving and protecting” and even defending industry over and against our people.
I urge all of our citizens to phone Charleston to urge your representatives to support bills that protect our water, such as House Bill 2333, the Public Water Systems bill, and to defeat all bills, such as Senate Bill 423 and House Bill 2574, that would limit or remove tanks from the law adopted in 2014 known as Senate Bill 373. Please go www.legis.state.wv.us to search for your representatives’ email or phone number and urge them to protect our water.
The Rev. Ralph W. Dunkin, Bishop of the West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a member of the WestVirginia Council of Churches Executive Committee