Protection not EPA’s middle name

Perhaps the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ought to worry less about shutting down every coal-fired power plant in the country and more about safeguarding Americans against toxic tap water.

EPA officials may even want to rethink their priorities. Federal officials seem to spend lots of time worrying about potential contamination of water wells serving one or two families near natural gas and oil well sites.

But when 300,000 West Virginians find their water tainted by a toxic chemical, the reaction by government at all levels seems to be, “Who, us? We’re not supposed to be preventing that.”

What happened earlier this month in and around Charleston was a reminder that if you believe the government protects you against real danger, you’re sadly deluded. If it isn’t politically incorrect, the bureaucrats and politicians often don’t worry about it.

When a huge storage tank at a Freedom Industries facility along the Elk River in Charleston failed on Jan. 9, thousands of gallons of a mildly toxic chemical spilled into the Elk River. Water is drawn from that stream for treatment and distribution to about 300,000 people.

Fortunately, local officials acted quickly to shut off the flow of water and alert people of the danger. Fewer than a dozen required treatment at hospitals. The chemical is not deadly, but it can cause nausea, headaches, skin rashes and other maladies.

Many people became aware there was a problem when they noticed an odor of licorice in the air.

What if the first sign of trouble had been people dropping dead all over Kanawha County? If state and federal agencies aren’t monitoring production and storage of one chemical, are they paying attention to more deadly substances?

At least the EPA is on guard against chicken farmers in Hardy County, W.Va.

Though the Clean Water Act specifically exempts farmers from some of its more onerous rules, the EPA went after Lois Alt, claiming it had to do something about pollutants washed into streams from her small chicken farm. In effect, the agency threatened to fine Alt $37,500 each time it rained.

But EPA storm troopers (again, the agency claimed Alt’s farm was polluting during periods of precipitation) tried to play chicken with the wrong woman. Alt sued the EPA, refusing to withdraw her action even when the agency tried to back away.

Last fall, federal Judge John Preston Bailey ruled against the EPA. He cited “common sense” in his opinion.

How many people does the EPA have cracking down on chicken farmers, fining people who build their homes on wetlands, digging up excuses to close coal mines and masking the fact that its war on coal is going to mean much higher electricity prices for tens of millions of families? Enough to inspect huge chemical storage tanks beside streams occasionally, perhaps?

Perhaps there’s some question about whether keeping hazardous chemicals out of the water supply is the EPA’s job. If so, agency officials ought to check their own mission statement.

A document titled “Fiscal Year 2013 – Federal Program Inventory” for the EPA lists five agency goals. No. 1 is “Taking Action on Climate Change and Improving Air Quality.” Another goal is to enforce environmental laws. A third addresses “Cleaning Up Communities and Advancing Sustainable Development.”

Goal No. 2 is “Protecting America’s Waters.”

Goal No. 5 is “Ensuring the Safety of Chemicals and Preventing Pollution.”

It’s tempting to suggest that if the EPA isn’t going to take two of its five chief goals seriously, its budget ought to be reduced by 40 percent.

Oh, well. At least the government, because of action by Congress in 2007, is ensuring Americans no longer are threatened by incandescent light bulbs.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mike Myer is executive editor of The Intelligencer and the Wheeling News-Register. He can be reached via e-mail at