The Campaign Spot

Meet the Worst Governor You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

The first Morning Jolt of a full and busy week notes the president’s human props guests for the State of the Union address, an embarrassing confession from a White House speechwriter, the National Republican Senatorial Committee emphasizing their stance in the Nebraska primary, and then this dramatically undercovered story . . . 

Meet Earl Ray Tomblin, the Worst Governor You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

On Howard Kurtz’s MediaBuzz this weekend, we discussed the disparate levels of coverage for controversies and scandals involving New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, New York governor Andrew Cuomo, and Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis.

Ana Marie Cox — less reliably liberal than some on the Right think — pointed out there was another governor embroiled in a supremely consequential crisis recently who’s gotten almost no national coverage: West Virginia’s Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat.

In case you’ve forgotten, Freedom Industries Inc. accidentally spilled thousands of gallons of a chemical used to clean coal into the Elk River

Roughly 300,000 people across nine counties near Charleston, the state capital, had to live with a “do not use” tap water ban for five days, give or take — meaning they could not drink, cook, wash or bathe that whole time, even after boiling the water. At times, the water coming out of the taps was flammable.

No matter how much you disdain the Environmental Protection Agency, it seems pretty clear that this corner of West Virginia could use some more actual, you know, environmental protection:

Even before last week’s chemical spill fouled tap water in nine counties in West Virginia, where more than 200,000 people still cannot use their water after seven long days, it was not unusual to find black water running from kitchen faucets in homes outside Charleston.

Or to see children with chronic skin rashes. Or bathtub enamel eaten away, leaving locals to wonder what the same water was doing to their teeth.

“Welcome to our world,” says Vivian Stockman, 52, a longtime resident of rural Roane County, north of Charleston, the state capital, and an activist with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

(Maybe keeping an eye on this was one of the duties of that EPA employee who managed to take years off from work by claiming to secretly be working for the CIA.)

Tomblin’s office would insist that he’s not responsible for the spill. But the governor, has been in office since 2010, and was president of the state senate before that for 17 years. He’s been one of the most powerful men in the state for two decades, and he’s had ample opportunity to shape the state’s environmental laws and as governor, how they’re enforced.

Apparently they’re not enforced so well. And in an approach reminiscent of the gun-control debate, Tomblin seems to be suggesting the problem is a lack of laws:

Last Monday, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin stood behind a podium in the West Virginia Capitol and announced his plan for a new program to prevent chemical spills from what he called “unregulated” above-ground storage tanks.

Tomblin said his proposal would give the state Department of Environmental Protection “the tools necessary” to prevent another chemical leak like the one from the Freedom Industries tank farm, which contaminated the Elk River and the drinking water supply for 300,000 West Virginians.

“It was not regulated, and this bill will address that,” the governor said later to a small group of reporters . . . 

However, in several interviews with the Sunday Gazette-Mail, [Secretary Randy] Huffman and other DEP officials have made it clear — as Huffman did in his appearance with the governor — that Freedom Industries was absolutely not unregulated.

“I don’t think of them as being unregulated, but as being under-regulated,” Huffman said in one discussion.

As debates over future actions move through the Statehouse, the distinction is important. Environmental groups and regulatory experts say that no matter what rules govern Freedom Industries or any other company, those rules mean little unless the DEP becomes more aggressive with inspections and enforcement actions.

But even the best law in the world won’t do you much good if you have crappy enforcement:

In the days immediately after the Elk River leak, DEP officials said an initial review showed that they had not inspected the Elk River tank farm since at least 1991, when it was owned by a different company and was used for a different purpose.

After a more comprehensive review of their records, DEP officials have revealed a series of site visits by inspectors from the agency’s Division of Air Quality. Air inspectors were responding to odor complaints from residents — some of whom reported the now-familiar black-licorice smell of Crude MCHM — and examined if the site needed a state air-pollution permit. So far, DEP records indicate the agency concluded that the odor complaints were unfounded, and that no new permits were necessary.

This is spurring a bit of Democrat vs. Democrat criticism:

A West Virginia Senate leader thinks the governor’s proposal to prevent chemical spills caters to industry interests.

Senate Majority Leader John Unger says Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s bill doesn’t do enough to register and inspect above-ground storage tanks.

Unger took issue with Tomblin’s bill on Tuesday because it regulates just above-ground tanks deemed too close to a water supply. It also would only regulate sites holding chemicals above a certain risk level.

Unger is proposing regulation of all above-ground tanks.

And, of course:

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin says he was unaware he received campaign checks from top executives at the company at the center of West Virginia’s chemical spill.