Public Safety: Warehouse inventory lists are a necessity

It has been less than a year and a half since a devastating fire at one of the IEI Plastics warehouses in Parkersburg filled the air — not just in our community, but in communities many miles away — for eight days. No one knew what was burning. Our burning eyes and throats told us we needed to find out more.

And that was not easy. In fact there are STILL plenty of unanswered questions. But as it became clear there were dangerous gaps in the information available to the public (along with first-responders and public officials) about what was in that and many other buildings dotting the entire state, Del. John Kelly, R-Wood, said he would introduce legislation requiring warehouses to keep up-to-date inventories of exactly what was stored in these facilities. It seemed a common sense matter of public safety. But it took so long for the bureaucrats at various government agencies to provide lawmakers with the information necessary to form such a bill that it died during that legislative session.

Then last fall, Kelly showed us draft language for a bill “requiring employers to maintain a chemical information list for any chemical on that premises,” and he said “Because of the history of the (IEI warehouse fire), I think it is a bill that probably will be pushed pretty quickly.

Less than four months later, Kelly — who at the time of showing us the draft bill said he was still seeking input from “individuals in the warehousing business and the West Virginia Manufacturing Association” — now says no such bill will be introduced.

“At the present time, we’re not doing anything else with it,” he said. The idea has died in Charleston twice.

Meanwhile, Wood County Commissioners heard this week from the assessor’s office, which is seeking an accounting of warehouses in the area that should be subject to the inventory tax, but are likely not paying the county enough because they are not reporting the full value of what they have — they are not giving an accurate account of what is in those buildings.

“There are warehouses that we know have product in it, but they are not reporting it,” said Commission President Blair Couch.

Companies are not reporting what they are storing next door to our homes, schools, hospitals — right in the heart of our communities — and it is a matter of both public safety AND failure to pay taxes that are owed.

And they continue to get away with it.

Why? What on earth is worth keeping that hidden; and who is responsible for finding out?

Kelly says we should be asking the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. He now says there is no need for a new law because the state fire marshal (who reports to DMAPS) already has rule-making authority, including adding a requirement to the state fire code to require inventory lists at warehouses.

If that is the case, it should have been done a LONG time ago. Why wasn’t it?

“Take it to the top,” Kelly said. “Take it to DMAPS and let them work it out.”

And Lawrence Messina, director of communications for DMAPS did not argue.

“(The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act) has a state law counterpart, and requires the reporting of chemical inventories,” he said. “(Homeland Security) has overseen this reporting requirement in West Virginia as the supporting agency for the State Emergency Response Commission.”

Really? Then who dropped the ball? Who is responsible for the fact we still do not know what is being stored in the facilities all around us?

West Virginia is working to create a business-friendly environment with a regulatory and tax structure that benefits both employers AND the employees — and rightly so. It is clear, however, there is still work to be done in erasing the business-as-usual mentality that has allowed some of those employers to call the shots in the Mountain State, too many times at the expense of its people.

There is a chance here for the folks in Charleston — whoever is truly responsible — to do something about that. Voters are waiting to see whether they will.