West Virginia Senator: My Residents Are Losing Faith in Government

Sen. Jay Rockefeller said the political fallout from the Elk River chemical spill is perpetuating the state's sense of fatalism.

Rockefeller: Dems unified on FCC issue. (National Journal)

The chemical spill in West Virginia's Elk River has attracted a chorus of complaints about the lack of regulation and accountability before and after the spill, but Sen. Jay Rockefeller sees a bigger problem.

The West Virginia Democrat said that Freedom Industries' chemical spill and its bankruptcy filing just a week later are encouraging the state's "Scotch-Irish" sense of fatalism, during a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Water and Wildlife Subcommittee.

There is "an Appalachian myth," Rockefeller said, that the federal government will not look out for the state, and that companies like Freedom Industries cannot be held accountable.

"The idea that God has it in his plan to make sure that industry is going to make life safe for you — not true," he said.

Rockefeller said West Virginia residents have told him they want to leave the state because they have no faith that their water will be clean, either in the short or long term.

That belief, Rockefeller said, was exacerbated when Freedom Industries filed for bankruptcy, which he and several senators said could be a means of avoiding liability for the spill.

"They will cut corners, and they will get away with it," Rockefeller said.

Much of the hearing was focused on strengthening the Toxic Substances Control Act, which requires testing and reporting on chemical-storage facilities. The Freedom Industries facility had not been tested since 2002. Rockefeller cosponsored a Senate bill with fellow West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, as well as Barbara Boxer and Dick Durbin, which would amend TSCA's system of assessing chemical risks.

Rockefeller was adamant that federal legislation is necessary to prevent similar chemical spills in the future, rather than leaving the issue to state regulators. That's partly for practical reasons relating to environmental regulations, he said, but also to put a dent in West Virginians' passive views.

"You don't accept the world as it is," Rockefeller said. "You accept it as it should be, and then you make it conform to that posture."