CHARLESTON, W.Va. — State lawmakers are getting an earful from residents who want accountability and action after spending days without usable tap water following the Jan. 9 chemical leak along the Elk River in Kanawha County.
Fifty people spoke for an allotted two minutes each at the State Capitol during Monday night’s public hearing in the House of Delegates on SB 373.
It’s a bill that, if approved, would establish regulations for above ground storage tanks, like the tank at Freedom Industries that leaked an estimated 10,000 gallons of crude MCHM and PPH.
Almost a month after the chemical leak that made it into the tap water for 300,000 West Virginians, Jill Watkins from South Charleston told lawmakers she still has many questions.
“My primary concerns now are how homes will be properly flushed of MCHM, how we view industrial chemicals from here on out — noting that, just because a chemical is not labeled ‘hazardous’ or ‘toxic’ that it can still have adverse impacts on the public and environmental health,” she said.
Laura Thaw from Charleston said she, like many people, is considering leaving the Kanawha Valley for good after the water contamination. “I would like to remain a part of this community, but the risks sustained are beginning to outweigh the benefits,” she told lawmakers.
That is why, Nancy Ward, a small business owner, said the Legislature’s actions in the coming weeks will, in large part, determine the future of the nine-county region.
“We’re watching you and, depending on your actions, we will decide if this is a place we want to stay and raise our families, do business and retire, or is it time to leave,” Ward told lawmakers.
Richard Katz from Charleston agreed. “It’s time to return this great state to its people. We’re watching. Our children are watching. The nation and this state are watching what you do. Please act.”
The House Health and Human Resources Committee was the first scheduled House stop for the bill the full Senate unanimously approved last week.
“We have to have the ability to prevent the situation from happening, the ability to respond quickly when it does happen and the ability to restore at the end of the day,” said Del. Don Perdue (D-Wayne, 19), the House Health committee chair.
“It’s just too big, if you will, to allow anything less than an absolute and complete vetting of all considerations.”
The bill was proposed at the State Capitol in the weeks after the Freedom Industries’ chemical spill that contaminated tap water for West Virginia American Water Company customers who get their water from the Kanawha Valley Water Treatment Plant.
It would require all above ground storage tanks to be registered with the state, meet certain standards for safety and undergo annual inspections.
Company-hired engineers would conduct the yearly inspections. However, at sites sitting less than 25 miles upstream from a treatment facility’s water intake, officials with the state Department of Environmental Protection would conduct a separate inspection each year.
Additionally, if the legislation is approved, public water systems would be required to have established emergency plans for future chemical spills.
“Water is a necessity to our every day life and we cannot allow it to be poisoned anymore,” Destiny Gallagher, 16, of Boone County told lawmakers on Monday night.
Perdue said he was listening and other lawmakers were doing the same. “We all were guilty of saying to ourselves, ‘That isn’t going to happen,’ everybody, legislatively, individually,” he said of the lessons learned from the water emergency.
“For too many years, for too long, we took for granted something that was so precious to us that we couldn’t allow it possibly to fail and yet we did.”
The 2014 Regular Legislative Session continues through Saturday, March 8.