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'Safety first' plan urged to protect West Virginia workers, residents
Catholic News Service photo
Residents fill up containers with water at an emergency distribution center in Poca, W.Va., Jan.11. A federal disaster declaration has been issued for a West Virginia chemical spill that may have contaminated tap water and prompted officials to order res idents in nine counties not to use tap water to bathe, brush their teeth or wash their clothes.
Catholic News Service photo
Residents fill up containers with water at an emergency distribution center in Poca, W.Va., Jan.11. A federal disaster declaration has been issued for a West Virginia chemical spill that may have contaminated tap water and prompted officials to order res idents in nine counties not to use tap water to bathe, brush their teeth or wash their clothes.
Catholic News Service

WHEELING, W.Va. — In a letter to West Virginia Catholics about the recent chemical spill in their state, Bishop Michael Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston said "safety first" must be "a lived reality" within West Virginia's coal mining and chemical industries.

"Having seen the consequences of a single chemical leak on the lives of so many," he wrote. "I remain convinced that we owe it to our chemical workers, to our miners and mine operators, and to those who live around them to demand that our mines and chemical facilities become 'zero accident' work places, where an accident is unacceptable to all and where production would always be halted rather than risk an accident."

The bishop released the letter in the Jan. 24 issue of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the statewide diocese. In it, he called on state legislators to enact better regulations to protect the state's people and environment from such accidents on the future.

"With regulation, there must be adequate inspection and enforcement protocols in place, and we look to our state legislators to develop an effective plan in collaboration with the appropriate state and federal agencies," he wrote. "The responsibility to regulate does begin with our state government, with those we have elected to promote and protect the interests of our state and its citizens."

The chemical spill occurred Jan. 9 when a chemical used in the coal preparation process leaked from a tank at a Freedom Industries facility into the Elk River, which flows into the Kanawha River through  Charleston. The disaster left 300,000 in a nine-county area without water for days.

In the letter, the bishop said he was deeply troubled such an accident could occur.

"In a state which has seen five major accidents in the coal and chemical industries in the past eight years, each having significant impacts on human life, I am more convinced than ever that we owe it to (coal miners) and to ourselves to ask the questions that will lead to good safeguards and adequate technologies that prevent disasters," he said.

He added that coal miners, chemical workers and everyone else in the state deserve efforts to "ensure that unsafe mining practices and mines with a disproportionate number of violations are properly addressed, before lives are jeopardized; we owe it to them and to ourselves to make certain that 'safety first' isn't just a motto but that it is a lived reality in our state's mines' and in our state's chemical industry."

The bishop said that he realizes the importance of the mining and chemical industries within West Virginia. While only 4 percent of the population is employed in coal mining, he wrote, the livelihoods of many depend on coal across the state.

He noted the increase in shale gas extraction across West Virginia and the rise in both drilling and in the chemical industry.

"Chemical facilities have expanded in response to this boom," he wrote, "and not without incident: Reports of airborne release and of mercury dumping have returned in recent years."

In the face of that reality, he said the Catholic Church "has an obligation to continue to remain vigilant in these areas to ensure that justice is served and human dignity is protected."

Bishop Bransfield thanked those who responded to people in need during the disaster, especially Catholic Charities West Virginia, the Knights of Columbus, and many area parishes and institutions that donated bottled water and organized water distribution centers

"During the crisis, I heard stories of great acts of kindness and of concrete steps to ensure that the thirsty were given to drink (Mt 25:35). ... These works of mercy, large and small, surely made a difference in the lives of many. I am very thankful for the fraternal concern and charitable efforts of so many across our state."

The bishop concluded: "We owe it to our children, to our elderly, to the poor and to ourselves to take positive steps now to ensure that adequate regulations are adopted and that proper inspections routinely occur not only to prevent future leaks such as this one, but to ensure that we have clean drinking water and that our state's beautiful, living waters remain a blessing and a resource that can be enjoyed by all of God's creation."

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