Elk River spill: Examing actions prudent

West Virginia Public Service Commission officials’ desire to learn whether adequate precautions were taken to protect public water customers before and after a dangerous chemical spilled into the Elk River at Charleston last winter seems reasonable.

Two considerations enter into such thinking: First, the disaster was a massive one, affecting about 300,000 customers in and around Charleston. Second, while the chemical that spilled last winter seems to have only sickened many people, the next such disaster could involve a deadly substance.

But PSC investigators have encountered the equivalent of a shut-off tap: The utility involved, West Virginia American Water Co., has balked at providing some of the information being sought.

It appears the company acted prudently in its response to the spill. But PSC investigators want details of both precautions taken in advance and response once it was known a chemical spilled into water drawn from the Elk River.

The PSC’s Consumer Advocate Division has asked the full commission to obtain information about how West Virginia American prepares for such disasters. But the company objects. Some of the information sought involves precautions taken against terrorist acts, the firm argues.

That may well be the case. But it makes no sense to allow the water company to escape scrutiny simply because it cites federal anti-terrorism law allowing some secrecy.

Even in cases involving safeguards against terrorist acts, some oversight is important. Otherwise, a company – or government agency – that has taken few or no precautions against disasters cannot be held accountable.

PSC officials certainly have a dilemma on their hands. If West Virginia American’s argument is correct, the state agency may not be able to obtain the information it seeks.

If that happens, the federal government should be asked to step in. Again, knowing whether the water company’s actions before and during the spill were prudent is important enough that the matter should be pressed.