When the bad guys are untouchable E-mail
Written by Mark Nichols   

What do we really mean when we invoke the term “public safety?” Like a lot of terms that we think we understand, they actually can mean different things to different people. For instance if you ask a police chief what he or she means when they say “public safety,” odds are the term is being used to describe the day to day operations of local law enforcement- drunk driving enforcement, crime-fighting initiatives and so on.

If you ask a United States Park Ranger what public safety’s all about chances are they will talk about keeping the people visiting our most treasured natural resources safe.

If you’re an environmental police officer “public safety” can mean things like a local body shop dumping motor oil into a public waterway. That’s usually an easy situation to deal with if the violator/crime suspect isn’t owed too many favors in the halls of power.

But what can we say about the state of public safety today in West Virginia?

No there hasn’t been a statewide crime spike and legislators haven’t passed some restrictive gun law that would get everyone worked up into a lather. In fact if you watched the Sunday morning talk shows yesterday you might not even be aware of the fact that something huge happened in the Mountain State that led officials to declare a state of emergency.

In fact, everyone’s been so caught up in Chris Christie’s “bridgegate” scandal that few of us were even aware of the fact that 300,000 West Virginia residents had their water poisoned after a massive chemical spill involving a shady company known as Freedom Industries.

In fact it’s been four days since a coal-processing chemical leaked into the Elk River, leaving 300,000 residents in West Virginia’s Kanawha Valley without any water service.

Freedom Industries leaked 4-methylcyclohexane methanol from a ruptured storage tank into the nearby the Elk River.

The chemical that poisoned the water is called MCHM and is used to wash coal.

Government agencies have done the best they can in the chemical spill’s aftermath by shipping bottled water to the area for local residents.

One would think heads are going to roll over this but there’s a major catch.

West Virginia is so dependent on coal and energy companies that it’s not only likely that no one will be held accountable for this spill, the odds of any reforms to prevent such disasters in the future can be euphemistically described as slim to none.

“We can’t just point a single finger at this company,” said Angela Rosser, the executive director of West Virginia Rivers Coalition. “We need to look at our entire system and give some serious thought to making some serious reform and valuing our natural resources over industry interests.”

In other words the real residents of West Virginia are chemical and energy companies and the taxpayers are an afterthought at best.

That’s why Freedom Industries was allowed to build a storage facility for a deadly chemical on the river and so dangerously close to the largest water treatment plant in the state.

What can an environmental police officer do in a situation like this? Probably nothing. The same goes for law enforcement in general. When you’re dealing with potential criminal activity by industry as opposed to individuals the gun, the handcuffs and the badge are pretty much useless.

But it’s worth asking what we mean we say “public safety” in a country where a guy that passed a couple of bad checks gets the top-to-bottom criminal justice treatment and the guys that poisoned our water face nothing in the way of accountability or penalty.

In fact, if recent history is any guide, not only will the culprits get away with it, they’ll use the spill to continue to fight even a modicum of the kind of regulation that could have prevented the disaster in the first place.

Odds are the bad guys will even be on the receiving end of apologies from state legislators and radio and television personalities.

If you’re thirsty or dying to take a shower in West Virginia right now you know there’s more to public safety than just cops and robbers.

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