Mitigating Risks to Avoid Inflamed Issues

The chemical spill in West Virginia is an excellent example of allowing risks to turn into issues through inattention and failure to act.The best issues-management strategy is one that recognizes risks before they become issues. This requires the foresight and courage to identify risks and take proactive action.

The advantage of tackling risks is avoiding protracted public debates when those risks fester into issues that cause heartburn in a neighborhood, community or state. Drawn-out controversies cost money, often lead to expensive settlements and deeply bruised reputations. 

A month ago, Freedom Industries informed West Virginia officials of a leak from one of its chemical storage tanks into the Elk River, the source of drinking water for 300,000 people and hundreds of businesses.

Embarrassment abounded. Freedom Industries couldn't say for sure when the leak began or how much of the chemical spilled into the river. Government officials admitted they knew little about the chemical that potentially contaminated Charleston's water supply. The issue has gone from bad to worse with admissions of an additional chemical involved in a spill and reports of lax oversight of the company's accident prevention plan.

Freedom Industries has filed for bankruptcy, amid questions of who really owns the company. State and local officials are scrambling for answers. Meanwhile, community residents are unsettled and unsure whether their water is safe to drink — or even use in toilets.

The outcome could have been different if:

  • Freedom Industries would have been more vigilant in monitoring its storage tanks and kept its accident-prevention plan up to date. 

  • Regulators would have been diligent in inspecting tanks, monitoring accident prevention plans, requiring sensors to detect potential leaks and asking about the actual chemicals in the tanks.

  • Community leaders had pressed for more stringent regulation — and legislation, if necessary — to guard against spills that could jeopardize their municipal water supply.

The spill may not have been avoidable. But the risks associated with storage tanks near a river could have been anticipated and mitigated. Freedom Industries and its regulators should have discussed what chemicals were in storage so their properties were known. That information would have been valuable for local emergency responders and hospitals, as well as for regulators and utilities that provide drinking water and handle wastewater. 

An accident could have been contained instead of allowed to ripple into a disaster — if only risks were recognized and addressed before they became inflamed issues.