CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Here in West Virginia, residents were still reeling from the chemical spill that left more than 300,000 people without usable water for days, many of them still frightened and unsure whether official assurances that they could once again drink tap water or bathe their children were true.
But in Washington on Wednesday, among friends at an event sponsored by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, West Virginia’s junior senator and former governor, Joe Manchin III, was preaching a familiar gospel of an industry under siege by overzealous regulators.
“You feel like everyone’s turned against you,” he said sympathetically. He assured his audience that he would continue to fight back against the rules, quoting the state motto in Latin: “Montani semper liberi” — “Mountaineers are always free.”
In an interview the next day, he expounded on the theme. “West Virginia is a heavy lifting state — coal mining and chemical manufacturing,” Manchin said. “If it weren’t for the resources we had here, you wouldn’t have industrial might, you wouldn’t have the middle class.”
The spill, which occurred when 7,500 gallons of a chemical used to clean coal leaked from an aging, outmoded storage tank into the Elk River, played out in a state that has often been seen by outsiders as a place apart.
West Virginia, with its strong ties to coal and chemicals, has long had a fierce opposition to environmental regulations. It has also been the scene of five major accidents related to coal or chemicals in eight years.
But amid an energy boom that extends from Pennsylvania to North Dakota and the belief among many conservatives that the nation suffers from too much regulation, the issues that played out have enormous relevance well beyond state lines.
They include all the questions about the incident raised by regulators and environmental critics: why the tank was so close to a water treatment plant, how often it was inspected and by whom, the hazard status accorded the chemical inside the tanks, what regulations might have prevented the spill, and what would have been their costs.
And as Congress this winter considers updating a much-criticized chemical safety law, the Toxic Substances Control Act, Manchin, a Democrat, is one of the key players.
At the very least, the spill raised concerns for many West Virginians about the state’s attitudes toward regulation.
“This ought to be a huge wake-up call,” said Barbara Evans Fleischauer, a Democratic member of the West Virginia House of Delegates. “I don’t think people want the government to get out of the way right now. What we’re supposed to do in state government is protect the health and welfare of our citizens.”
West Virginia’s record of deferring to industry is long and deep, reflecting its heavy economic reliance on coal, chemicals, and natural gas. But it remains unclear exactly what regulations could have prevented the Elk River spill.
The tank farm where chemicals were stored seems to have fallen outside the bounds of multiple state and federal antipollution laws.
Randy C. Huffman, the Cabinet secretary in charge of environmental protection for the state, said that because the facility stored chemicals but did not produce them, his department had no responsibility for regulating it.