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JANUARY 2015 The Man in the Middle

An interview with W.Va. Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman on the one-year anniversary of a catastrophic chemical leak above the state’s largest drinking water intake.

By David Lillard

In the days following the incident, environmental groups would call for the head of WV DEP Secretary Randy Huffman. During the crisis and after legislation was passed to address some of the systemic failures revealed by the leak, Huffman attended countless forums and public meetings to listen to concerns and respond to questions. A year later, some environmental groups praise Huffman, while industry has gone on the attack. TO: What kind of journey

has this been, and how has it changed you? “Journey is too much of a romantic notion,”


Huffman. “But I have learned a lot and it’s changed me. It has opened my eyes to how vulnerable we are . . . to things that can affect our air and our water.”

TO: What was your personal response to the fi nger pointing after the leak was announced? “We live in a society where everything that happens . . . the easy thing to do is to pin it down to one person. But people’s frustration and outrage is a big deal. When you’re out of water,” says Huffman, “people can accept that situation for a few hours, but not for days.” Still, says Huffman, some of the criticism went beyond the crisis at hand. “Opportunists came out of the woodwork. I heard more about people’s opposition to mountaintop coal mining during the water crisis than I have before or since,” he said.

“I sat in panel discussions

with people in the audience who were not affected in any way by the crisis, who were activists, who made their way

to Charleston because it was an opportunity to get me up there and ask me the unanswerable questions,” said Huffman. He said the meetings became a venue for people to complain about mountaintop removal mining. “I am not saying that people don’t have a right to be activists for their causes,” Huffman added. “We should just have the right debate at the right time.”

TO: Things that have emerged from the crisis include the passage of water protections for aboveground storage tanks and drinking water supplies, as well as efforts to classify the entire Kanawha River as a potential drinking water source—a classifi cation known as Category A. “If we had had SB373 in place before,” said Huffman, it “would have required certifi cations that would have gone much further in ensuring the risk that the tank would leak is zero.” “SB373 absolutely will make a difference,” said Huffman. What Huffman

calls his

“soul searching” on what clean water means, is one reason he decided to seek Category A classifi cation for a 72-mile section of the Kanawha—the

standard for most stream miles in the state. It classifi es them as available for drinking water. Category A for the Kanawha would further restrict the amount of pollutants


could be put into the river. “I know there is no proposal to put a water intake on this river right now. But if you don’t protect your water to a high standard, then you can’t un-ring that bell whenever a community needs a water intake.”

TO: The state’s manufacturers’ trade lobbyists have blasted your proposal, saying it’s like putting a 25mph speed limit on every road in the state, in case we want to build a school there someday. “That’s just wrong,” said Huffman. “A better comment would

be it’s like having

every road in the state with a 70mph speed limit, which would

thereby restrict the

opportunity to ever build a school.”

The manufacturers association also said setting a higher standard the Kanawha development

for in

would hurt the state.

“That’s simply wrong. That’s a 180 from the truth. Companies that are looking to invest

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West Virginia DEP Secretary Randy Huffman.

millions, even billions of dollars in

this state, are not going

to spend that kind of money where you haven’t protected your water to the highest standard possible.” Huffman says sometimes companies want it both ways,

citing a power plant

that wanted exemption from Category A standards because they said they couldn’t meet them. That same company had another plant further down the river that was struggling with scaling because the water had too high a level of dissolved solids. “That same company that wanted to put more stuff in the water in one place was complaining about their ability to use the water in another place.”

TO: Many people have called for more inspectors, arguing that DEP is understaffed and can’t keep track of problem polluters. Do you think more are needed?

“There’s an element of folk out there that believes that more inspectors does something magical,” said Huffman.

“Yes, more boots

on the ground, more eyes out there, does make a difference. I don’t question that. “But you cannot double

your inspection staff and have a commensurate doubling of

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