WASHINGTON—In the wake of the recent chemical spill into the West Virginia water system, the American Federation of Teachers, AFT-West Virginia and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association said today they will call for stronger state and federal laws to ensure that chemical facilities are regularly inspected and assessed to protect the safety and health of communities and residents.
The union leaders also applauded the efforts of West Virginian teachers and school support staff, who joined other citizens while the schools were closed in helping distribute bottles of clean water and even delivering lunches to families whose children weren't getting their usual free lunches at school.
Mackenzie Childers, a Kanawha County Head Start teacher, collected food and other supplies, made 75 lunches and ensured they were distributed to kids on Monday.
"I had one parent contact me through Facebook to say thank you. They weren't home, but I had left the food with a family member. Her child—my student—was really disappointed he wasn't home when I stopped by, and he wanted to know if his teacher could come back. Kids! That's why I love my job!" said Childers, who teaches at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center.
"At a time when teachers are taking all kinds of hits, they proceed on with their unheralded acts of kindness. Teachers are not just in the teaching business; they're also in the caring and nurturing business to make a difference in the life of every child," said AFT-WV President Christine Campbell.
Jackee Long, president of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, said school support staff have been preparing schools for students' first day back. "Students are returning to clean and safe schools, thanks to the hard work of cafeteria workers, custodians and so many other behind-the-scenes support staff," Long said.
The AFT, AFT-WV and the WVSSPA will call on state lawmakers to pass legislation, recommended by the federal Chemical Safety Board and supported by West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, requiring chemical storage tanks to be inspected and regulated by the state.
Currently, MCHM—the chemical that poisoned the water in West Virginia—and 62,000 other chemicals are presumed safe unless there is evidence showing they might be unsafe or pose a risk to human health. At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency cannot compel the manufacturers to test or do research on these chemicals to determine if they are safe.
"This is a Catch-22 of the worst kind. In the absence of a legal change—necessary since the industry has proven it won't conduct safety monitoring on its own—we face more potential disasters," AFT President Randi Weingarten said.
"In addition, the impact of most chemical exposures is quicker and more severe for children, especially kids whose health is compromised by long-term poor nutrition, environmental stress and poverty. Affected residents in West Virginia and elsewhere need more information and certainty about the health effects of exposure," Weingarten said.