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Bostic said the coal industry is very carefully regulated by the state Department of Environmental Protection and several federal agencies that ensure it is safe from the very first step in opening a mine to ongoing operations.
"The environmental risk that’s associated with coal mining, we feel it’s well regulated," Bostic said.
There’s no doubt the coal and chemical industries are a hugely important part of the state’s economy. Even as he lamented the loss of business caused by the spill, Matt Ballard, president of the Charleston Area Alliance, the state’s largest regional chamber of commerce, talked about the importance of chemical companies in the Kanawha Valley, which includes the capital.
"The chemical industry, that’s what started the valley," Ballard said. "We’ve got a long history of a really good safety record, but with any business ... there’s always a risk."
Kent Sowards, the associate director for Marshall University’s Center for Business and Economic Research, said that there’s a delicate balance between offsetting economic needs and potential costs associated with the coal and chemical industries.
"There are risks inherent with everything. Whether the risk is something that someone wants to continue to bear, that ultimately becomes their decision," he said.
In West Virginia’s case, he believes the state is doing a good job of maintaining that balance.
And since the emergency is ongoing, it’s hard to assess at this point whether the response was successful, he said.
But in communities across the region, with names like Nitro and Dry Branch, people are beginning to wonder if it’s worth it.
Steve Brown, 56, lives outside of Nitro in the shadow of chemical plants. Over the years, he’s worked in some of those places, and knows firsthand about the risks and rewards.
"You made enough to support your family," said Brown, who is unemployed. "But you also see what it’s done to the environment. People stay away from fishing in rivers and streams near chemical plants. You have fish advisories. You know better. You just know."
The chemical spill has brought out the best and worst in people, he said. He watched folks deliver water to elderly and disabled neighbors who couldn’t get out of the house. But he also glimpsed people fight in grocery stores over bottles of water.
"When I saw that, I couldn’t believe it," he said. "It was really sad."
Chris Laws, 42, a coal miner who grew up in the Kanawha Valley, has worked in the mines for 20 years. He said he’s worried what will happen in a few days when people still aren’t able to shower, wash clothes or clean dishes.
"This ain’t even the bad times. The bad times aren’t here yet," he said as he waited outside the Kroger grocery store for water to be delivered.
He said it bothers him that officials have downplayed the impact on people.
"They make believe it’s no big deal. But it is a big deal. You have 300,000 people without water. If this goes on much longer, it’s going to cause mass chaos," he said.
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