Governor needs to take the lead on tank law problems

Governor Tomblin is a cautious, conservative leader.  His style of listening to all sides and considering the options before reaching a decision has served him well over the years.

But one can be too deliberate.  Sometimes prompt action is required, when the Governor needs to override his polite, consensus building judiciousness and exert more of his influence as the state’s chief executive.

The current conundrum with the state’s new tank law is one of those times.

Earlier this year the Governor appropriately proposed, and the Legislature passed, a bill designed to prevent another Freedom Industries. The chemical spill from a decrepit storage tank along the Elk River fouled the drinking water for up to 300,000 people and demonstrated the vulnerability of our water supplies.

The House of Delegates beefed up the version proposed by the Governor and passed by the Senate, but the House went too far.  The legislation created what many believe was an unintended consequence of holding smaller tanks in remote areas that store water, brine or oil to roughly the same standard as giant chemical tanks near water supply intakes.

The state’s small oil and gas drillers, who own and operate perhaps as many as 40,000 storage tanks, say it’s impossible for them to comply with the new regulations.  There aren’t enough certified engineers to complete required inspections by the Jan. 1, 2015 deadline. Also, many of the small wells are only marginally profitable so paying $1,000 to $2,000 per tank inspection will put some operators out of business.

State Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman believes the operators have a point, but he can only do so much to accommodate them. The deadlines in the law for inspection (by Jan. 1st) and registration (by Oct. 1st) cannot be waived.  Huffman also knows it’s impractical for operators to conduct inspections when his office is still several months away from finalizing the rules.

Lawmaker options include a special session as soon as possible, an exemption for a whole class of businesses from the law, delaying the inspection deadline and leaving the law the way it is.

Meanwhile, the operators are twisting in the wind, uncertain whether they should be making every effort to comply with the logistically impossible and potentially financially devastating regulation or try to pressure their elected representatives into a special session.

It is possible Tomblin is miffed, believing the House created the problem by changing his bill.  It’s also possible the ever-circumspect Tomblin does not want to be associated with the public grousing of a special session to reopen and rework the signature legislation of the 2014 session, especially if it’s before the election.

The Governor’s staff and DEP are trying to work out details of a solution, but this could get thorny.   It’s a complicated law with many stakeholders.  Getting agreement, as well as a workable law, won’t be easy.

Feminist Faye Wattleton said, “The only safe ship in a storm is leadership.”  The confusion and controversy over the tank law have created some turbulent seas.  The legislation needs important tweaks, while ensuring that our water supplies are protected.

Take charge, Governor.

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