The full House of Delegates will now consider an exception to the Aboveground Storage Tank Act that passed in the wake of the 2014 water crisis in the Kanawha Valley.
That’s despite a deputy secretary for the Department of Environmental Protection telling delegates the agency doesn’t favor the change.
“In its current form we do not support it,” testified Scott Mandirola, a deputy secretary for DEP.
The House Health Committee on Thursday evening passed House Bill 2598, which would exempt some tanks. The vote was 18-6, although most of the discussion in committee was from delegates who oppose the change.
If the bill passes, the act would no longer apply to small tanks having capacity of 210 barrels or less even if they are located in a “zone of critical concern,” which refers to their proximity to local water intakes.
“That is not the zone of just a little bit of concern. That is not the zone of medium concern. That is the zone of critical concern because it could affect our drinking water,” said Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia.
Delegate Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia, asked some questions attempting to get at a bottom-line assessment.
“If this bill passes will it weaken the Above Ground Storage Tank Act?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” Mandirola responded, describing almost 890 wells that would be exempt.
Goals of the program include making sure tank integrity is intact, ensuring tanks are examined at least every three years, keeping records of corrosion and leak detection.
“Virtually the entire program is a prevention program,” Mandirola said.
The inspection requirements date back to the 2014 crisis when up to 300,000 residents of Kanawha and surrounding counties had their water supplies affected by a spill of the chemical MCHM from a Freedom Industries facility. Just a couple of months later, lawmakers approved the Aboveground Storage Tank Act.
The Kanawha County Commission sent a letter earlier this week expressing opposition to the changes being proposed.
“Have we already forgotten the devastation caused by the water crisis in 2014? This is the Freedom Industries Bill, and in the interest of the public’s health and well-being, we urge the House Health Committee to reject this attempt to erase necessary public safety protections,” stated Kanawha Commission President Kent Carper.
Commissioners Ben Salango, a Democrat, and Lance Wheeler, a Republican, said they are against the changes, too.
“Kanawha County Emergency Management officials are strongly opposed to this bill. All aboveground tanks located near drinking water intakes should be well regulated to ensure public safety,” Wheeler said.
Advocates for the bill have said it’s necessary as oil markets have gotten tougher while the costs continue to maintain a standard for state inspection. Under this view, the tanks are barely profitable but owners have to upgrade them. Operators have expressed concern they will either have to plug the well or go out of business.
“These are going to be low volume, marginal wells,” said Phil Reale, a lobbyist for The Gas and Oil Association of West Virginia.
Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, said one of his first times speaking before the Legislature as a citizen came during a public hearing that followed the water crisis.
“After that happened in 2014, when a bunch of us woke up suddenly concerned about something we took for granted,” Pushkin said.
After that event, there was more than enough blame to go around, he said. Since then, he said, the Aboveground Storage Tank Act has been the subject of exemption after exemption.
“You vote for this,” Pushkin said, “the blame’s gonna be on you next time.”