State government releases candid assessment of failures; WV American Water not so much

Governor Tomblin’s office released an “After Action Review“, an assessment of the emergency response to the water crisis, on the one-year anniversary last Friday.

The report lays out a fairly comprehensive and honest analysis of what did and did not go well with the state’s response to the water crisis. The report identifies the WV Testing Assessment Project and Senate Bill 373 as positive outcomes. The report also identifies a number of flaws:

  • There was a lack of information about the health effects of MCHM and inconsistent information from the CDC about what level was “safe.”
  • The State “struggled at times communicating information effectively”
  • The flushing protocols were “not well vetted” and were not appropriate for all customers
  • Some state agency websites were “embarrassingly” out of date
  • The Tier II forms (provided to state and local emergency response officials under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act), which revealed the fact that MCHM was stored at the Freedom site, had not been disseminated effectively before the crisis. The report notes that the State Emergency Response Commission is in the early stages of making Tier II forms available electronically.

Overall, the report does a pretty good job, although it is lacking in some areas. The report emphasizes blame to federal agencies, particularly the CDC, for providing inconsistent information and adding to the state government’s communication problems. But the role of certain state officials in contributing to the dissemination of confusing and misleading information – including Bureau for Public Health Commissioner Tierney’s attribution of peoples’ symptoms to the flu, for example – is not directly addressed.

The report also cites the prior lack of regulation of aboveground tanks as a serious problem, though it does not go into the prior lack of regulatory enforcement as a problem (the Freedom site had not been inspected under its Clean Water Act permit for more than a decade). The report also does not address the failure to set up a medical monitoring program during the crisis.

The report does candidly note that the Governor’s secret industry-only stakeholder meeting to help draft Senate Bill 373 was a mistake. “In preparing the initial draft of the Aboveground Storage Tank Act, State officials should have solicited feedback from all parties, including environmentalists, instead of only vetting proposals with business and industry representatives,” the report says.

The appendix to the report includes self-assessment surveys completed by emergency responders, state agencies, and other entities (such as WV American Water) that were involved in the emergency response. Not surprisingly, WV American Water sees very little room for improvement in its emergency response. The Public Service Commission Staff’s review of WV American Water’s response to the crisis alleged more than 20 violations of the PSC’s water regulations, but WV American Water’s identified areas of improvement include only enhanced internal communications, improved coordination with government agencies on information provided to the public, updating their database of customer phone numbers, and “customer preparedness.” That is, the utility thinks its emergency response would have been improved if its customers had been better prepared by having more bottled water on hand. Although low levels of stored water in its system limited WV American Water’s ability to shut its intake on January 9th, the utility’s response is that customers should store more water.

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