West Virginians are understandably outraged about the water emergency caused by a spill at the Freedom Industries site along the Elk River over a month ago. The spill of 10,000 gallons of MCHM a mile and a half from the intake of the West Virginia American water plant has illustrated graphically just how vulnerable source water is in West Virginia.
The fears about source water contamination increased even more this week when over 100,000 gallons of coal slurry spilled into a creek leading to the Kanawha River. The spill is blamed on a malfunctioning valve, which was compounded by the failure of an alarm system that should have alerted someone.
Luckily, none of the slurry reached a water supply, but the timing was terrible. In response to the spills, Governor Tomblin and the state Legislature are rushing to pass a comprehensive bill to protect water supplies and regulate above ground storage tanks.
The bill has already passed the Senate (33-0-1) and this week SB 373 cleared the first of three House committees. However, the House Health Committee made an important change to the bill that needs a second look.
The amendment, authored by Kanawha County Republican Patrick Lane, requires every water treatment plant in the state—some 300 of them—to have either a back-up source for water or the ability to store several days of raw water in case of emergency.
“I think it’s important because part of the problem with the event here… is that there was no secondary intake,” Lane told me on Metronews Talkline Thursday. “I think it’s important for water providers to live up to their duty to provide clean and drinkable water.”
He’s right, but what neither Lane or anyone else can predict is how much that would cost. Undoubtedly it would be in the tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars to obtain pipe rights of way, run a second intake, add storage tanks and build the additional infrastructure necessary.
Water companies are monopoly utilities regulated by the state Public Service Commission, which determines rates. The cost of providing service is borne by the customers. The customers also have to pay for capital improvements, like the ones proposed in the Lane amendment.
Drinking water expert James Salzman from Duke University says it’s possible to build the most secure water supply system in the world, providing customers with the highest quality possible, but it’s going to be really expensive.
Are West Virginians ready to pay higher costs for water security because a slipshod chemical storage facility in Kanawha County spoiled the water supply? I doubt if they want to, and they shouldn’t have to.
Lane’s heart is in the right place. His constituents are among those still wrestling with the water emergency and he’s trying to respond on their behalf. That’s his responsibility.
However, the Legislature must adopt tough legislation to try to prevent another Freedom disaster without creating expensive unintended consequences.