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Sen. Rockefeller Responds To Water Safety Concerns


Is the water safe to drink? As we've just heard, that's the question still plaguing hundreds of thousands of West Virginians who live in and around Charleston. I spoke earlier today with the other U.S. senator from West Virginia, the senior senator, Democrat Jay Rockefeller.

Senator Rockefeller, welcome to the program.

SENATOR JAY ROCKEFELLER: Thank you, Melissa. I wouldn't drink that water if you paid me.

BLOCK: Really? Well, that was my first question, would you drink the water? And you say no.

ROCKEFELLER: Absolutely not.

BLOCK: Why not?

ROCKEFELLER: Well, because it - nobody has said that it's safe. Everybody, the CDC, the EPA, they all come out and say, do what you think is appropriate. And here are these 300,000 and, really, many more than that, when you think of the way it spreads, who are living absolutely frustration for an entire month when they can't do any of the basic things that you do. If you can't drink water, you can't do anything.

BLOCK: Hasn't the message, though, not just been, do what you think is appropriate? They've been hearing from federal and state and local authorities, yeah, go ahead, drink it, bathe in it. Well, wait a minute, maybe not if you're pregnant, don't drink it. But it seems that there was a rush to judgment from folks saying, look, the water supply is safe.

ROCKEFELLER: The real story to me behind this is twofold. One is that West Virginia as a state, traditionally - I'm very sorry to say - has been rather bad at enforcing regulations. People have the view - many people have the view, particularly those in the industry, that if you regulate them, they'll go out of business and people get laid off. Well, this is a perfect example of, when you don't regulate them, dozens and dozens, maybe hundreds of businesses have to close down, schools close down. People can't go to school. People can't do anything. People can't escape. If you've got money, you can escape to a second home somewhere up in the eastern part of the state but most people can't do that. I mean, it's a travesty really beyond description.

BLOCK: Well, let me ask you about that. You say this is a travesty beyond description. You were governor of West Virginia before you became a senator.


BLOCK: Your fellow senator is a Democrat. The governor of West Virginia is a Democrat. Doesn't the Democratic Party bear some responsibility for the climate of regulation and what's been allowed to happen in West Virginia?

ROCKEFELLER: Well, you will the person you're talking to is very, very strong on those things and that people vary. I mean, some people, they get elected by saying I'm against regulations. But I mean, you know, everybody is responsible. Democrats are responsible. Everybody is responsible.

BLOCK: What about the argument, Senator, that I'm sure you heard many, many times over the years that industry is the backbone of the economy of your state, whether it's coal or the chemical industry. I think this is called chemical valley, where this spill occurred. And there's a balance to be struck there and those - the economy of your state is very dependent on that industry.

ROCKEFELLER: There's a balance to be struck, and there's no question about that. But that's - and that's poetry coming out of your mouth is just totally doesn't mean anything in reality. There never has been a balance in West Virginia. The chemical industry, the coal industry in particular, other industries are just - do what they want.

Coal companies own large sections of West Virginia. They employ thousands of West Virginians at very high salaries. And if they didn't have that job, there'd be no other job because the state doesn't do anything to help train people for, quote, "those other jobs." So the industries always win, the people always lose. And it's the story of West Virginia, at least in part, and it's infuriating.

BLOCK: Do you see this as a turning point for West Virginians in how they feel about the industry?

ROCKEFELLER: I guess, I don't want to guide how they feel about industry. All I want them to do is to be able to get their legislators to - particularly at the state level, where they're doing it but also at the federal level. What they don't do at the state level, well, by God, we're going to do at the federal level: to regulate these chemicals which right now don't have to be inspected at all. Put in tough regulations, make them - every two or three years, make state inspectors and/or federal inspectors go in there and check them. This country is very fragile environmentally, it's going precisely the wrong way environmentally and cheered on by industry. Industries win, people lose. It's an old formula.

BLOCK: Well, Senator Rockefeller, thank you for talking with us today.

ROCKEFELLER: Melissa, thank you.

BLOCK: That's Senator Jay Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginian, speaking with us from his Senate office. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.