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West Virginia wants more disaster funding, FEMA says no

Workers, left, inspect an area outside a retaining wall around storage tanks where a chemical leaked into the Elk River at Freedom Industries storage facility in Charleston, W.Va. Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Tom Aluise says inspectors found five violations at a Nitro, W.Va., site where Freedom Industries moved its coal-cleaning chemicals after last Thursday’s spill. Inspectors found that, like the Charleston facility where the leak originated, the Nitro site lacked appropriate secondary containment. In Charleston, a porous containment wall allowed the chemical to ooze into the Elk River. (Steve Helber/AP, File)

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is appealing a decision by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to deny new assistance to state and local agencies a month after a chemical spill contaminated drinking water for more than 300,000 residents.

In a letter to Tomblin earlier this week, FEMA deputy associate administrator Elizabeth Zimmerman said the spill didn’t rise to disaster status.

“Based on our review of all the information available, it has been determined that the event was not of such severity and magnitude as to warrant grant assistance under this emergency declaration,” Zimmerman wrote in the letter, released by Tomblin’s office.

FEMA granted emergency assistance to nine counties impacted by the spill, in the Elk River, on Jan. 10. But the agency denied Tomblin’s Jan. 27 request to extend that aid to cover spending by local agencies to mitigate threats to life, safety and health.

Tomblin said he is “extremely disappointed by FEMA’s initial response.”

“I have personally contacted FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate to express my concern over this decision,” Tomblin said in a statement. “We are committed to providing the detail necessary to demonstrate the assistance needed by the public safety agencies that have provided support to citizens since this crisis struck more than one month ago.”

Tomblin’s office has estimated that the spill will cost state and local agencies more than $2 million, while state taxpayers will be on the hook for a quarter of the total FEMA aid that has already been provided. Hotels and restaurants are losing an estimated $1 million a day during the crisis, though federal aid doesn’t cover private businesses.

A FEMA spokesman told the Charleston Gazette that the agency has already provided 7 million liters of water to the state, and 130,000 meals. But, the spokesman said, the agency decided the ongoing recovery costs were not beyond local and state capabilities.

Tomblin’s office said it was working closely with members of the state’s congressional delegation to get FEMA to reconsider its decision.

“I am appalled that FEMA feels that an emergency that leaves 300,000 people without access to clean water is not severe enough to warrant additional federal assistance,” Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R), who represents the heart of the impacted area, told the Gazette in a statement.

Also on Wednesday, three schools in Charleston removed a shipment of Ice Mountain-brand water delivered by FEMA from circulation. The water, school officials said, was “musty” and had a “strong odor.”

Reid Wilson covers national politics and Congress for The Washington Post. He is the author of Read In, The Post’s morning tip sheet on politics.

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