The West Virginia Legislature is engaged in a debate over a controversial bill that changes how the state Department of Environmental Protection measures treated discharges into the state’s waterways. HB 2506 passed the House of Delegates last week 63-37 and now goes to the Senate.
The bill adopts the “harmonic mean” criteria for calculating the rate of stream flow in determining permit limits for discharges. Harmonic mean represents average stream flow rather than the current measurement based on the lowest seven-day waterway flow over a ten-year period.
The bill also allows for overlapping “mixing zones,” the points where discharges mix with the water and become diluted. Those permits would only be allowed with the approval of the state Department of Environmental Protection with EPA review.
The West Virginia Manufacturer’s Association is pushing the bill, arguing that the current permit requirements are too stringent. President Rebecca McPhail argues the adjustments would bring West Virginia closer to surrounding states and create more manufacturing job possibilities in the state.
Environmentalists and other opponents are mounting a passionate opposition, arguing that the changes will mean more pollution and endanger the state’s water supply.
They are correct that using the harmonic mean does allow the DEP to permit higher levels of discharge. However, it’s important to point out that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recommended DEP use harmonic mean flow “as the critical design flow for both carcinogens and non-carcinogens.”
Additionally, using the alternative measuring criteria does not weaken the overall water quality standards for the individual bodies of water. “No matter how many permitees exist on a particular body of water, that water quality standard still provides a cap on what the water quality standard must be,” explained bill supporter Delegate Roger Hanshaw (R-Clay) during floor debate last week.
That is a critical point, especially when some opponents try to fuel hysteria with “clean water vs. polluted water” argument. One lawmaker even suggested the bill made West Virginians “guinea pigs,” when in fact the harmonic mean is commonly used in neighboring states.
The state DEP backs the bill. Scott Mandirola, the agency’s deputy secretary, told the Senate Finance Committee last week, “Scientifically, it makes perfect sense.” He also reiterated what often gets lost in the debate. “It doesn’t change the water quality standards per se. It changes how we calculate the discharge limits for those pollutants.”
The West Virginia Municipal Water Quality Association, which represents public water, sewer and storm water utilities statewide, has signed off on the bill. “We believe HB 2506 is fully protective of our members’ water systems and the public we serve,” said general counsel Paul Calamita in a letter to the Manufacturer’s Association.
Naturally West Virginians should be protective of our water. It’s been a long, hard slog cleaning up our rivers and streams following years of abuse, and the state still has a serious issue with human waste making its way into our waterways.
Nobody wants to see us return to the bad old days, but that’s not what HB 2506 is about. It’s a reasonable adjustment that maintains the balance between protecting the environment and permitting business to operate here.