Editorials, Opinion

Why promote tourism, then add water pollution?

There are some things that are just quintessentially West Virginian: Pepperoni rolls, potholes, bright orange cones on every major roadway as soon as the weather turns nice and a state government that says one thing and does another.

Well, that last thing might not be unique to West Virginia, but West Virginia does have a unique spin on it. Because only in West Virginia will politicians tout the state’s natural beauty as one of its greatest assets and revenue generators, then turn around and promote legislation that would destroy the very things that supposedly draw people to the state.

The Legislature quickly granted Gov. Justice’s request to elevate the tourism department to a cabinet level position, but it’s also trying to revive a controversial Department of Environmental Protection rule that could allow more pollutants to be dumped into waterways. Are we the only ones who find this counterintuitive?

Our waterways are one of biggest tourism draws: Fishing, white water rafting, boating, paddle boarding, swimming, etc. Our rivers and lakes and waterfalls and rapids are part of what puts the “wild and wonderful” in “Wild and Wonderful West Virginia.” And with the state working so hard to promote tourism and attract visitors, we should be doing everything we can to protect our waterways.

We’re talking specifically about HB 2389, which brings back to the table a DEP rule that would adopt some national pollutant standards. But of the 24 standards being considered, 13 of them are less stringent than the ones already in place. That means the amount of pollution permitted to be dumped in our water would increase for 13 pollutants.

We’re all for updating standards, but when the new standards are lower than the standards in place, that’s a problem. Now, if the DEP wanted to adopt the more strict regulations for the remaining 11 pollutants, we would wholeheartedly support that.

The rule under consideration in HB 2389 is not popular. It failed in 2018, got deferred in 2019 and, in a public hearing this year, 24 out of 32 people opposed it. And it’s not just environmental groups who take issue with the proposed change: Ordinary citizens have turned out to speak against it.

Even at the current standards, tourists have to be warned to stay out of the water after a hard rain. Friends of Deckers Creek’s website — which actively promotes outdoor activities — had to add this caveat to its swimming section: “Take caution during high flow events and directly after rainfall, as the creek can contain higher levels of pollution from Combined Sewer Overflows. Also, do not swim in areas with large amounts of AMD (acid mine drainage).”

Because tourists definitely want to hear that it might not be safe to swim in our natural waterways. Don’t get us wrong: That is an accurate and important warning. People absolutely should be informed about potential risks.

But it definitely says something about West Virginia as a state that we think tourism is so important that it should be a cabinet position, then damage and pollute our biggest tourist attractions and still expect the visitors to come.