The 2014 regular session of the West Virginia Legislature began on Wednesday, Jan. 8. Less than 24 hours later, an estimated 10,000 gallons of the chemical MCHM leaked from an aging industrial tank into the Elk River, fouling the water supply for 300,000 West Virginians.
Gov. Tomblin and lawmakers immediately went to work, drafting legislation aimed at preventing a similar disaster by, among other things, regulating above ground storage tanks, like the ones that leaked at Freedom Industries.
The Senate rushed through a bill early in the session. The House put off serious work on the bill until late in the session. To their credit, however, when delegates took up SB 373, they really worked it.
Last Sunday, the House Judiciary Committee spent nearly 10 hours on the bill, and didn’t finish until after 1 a.m. Monday. Wednesday night, the full House debated the bill and a variety of amendments for four hours before passing it unanimously.
Now, state senators are studying the bill’s changes. The two bodies will have to come to an agreement on the language before the end of the regular session at midnight Saturday.
It’s hard to know the full impact of the legislation without going through the lengthy bill line by line and interpreting all the provisions. However House leaders, as well as DEP Secretary Randy Huffman, believe the bill, as revised in the House, goes a long way toward preventing another Freedom Industries fiasco.
Key provisions include:
–A requirement that above ground storage tanks be permitted, regulated and inspected annually. Tanks near water plant intakes and source water would have to be inspected by the DEP. Tank inspections outside critical areas could be done by private engineers.
–A stipulation that public water utilities that use surface water identify potential sources of contamination. Those same utilities would have to develop a source water protection program and emergency plans in case of a spill.
There are, of course, still some sticking points.
For example, an amendment approved by the House Wednesday night appears to exclude storage tank owners who already have a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit from paying the fee required in the legislation. Huffman says that could exempt as many as half of all the tanks from the fee, even though they will be permitted and inspected.
Also, the House bill includes a requirement that West Virginia American Water Company install a warning system in Charleston to detect contaminants in the source water, like the company already has in Huntington. However, WVAWC contends the amendment requires a real-time monitoring system for just about anything that can be in the water, which the company says “no water system anywhere in the country could comply with today.”
It’s too early to know whether lawmakers have gotten it right. Comprehensive and complicated legislation can only be tinkered with so much before it is put into practice to see whether it works as intended.
However, lawmakers clearly have heard the voices of outraged West Virginians who expect their drinking water should not be contaminated by some fly-by-night operation, and they are trying to ensure it does not happen again.