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West Virginia Lawmakers Move Toward More Waterway Protections

A bill making its way through the West Virginia House of Delegates would better protect public water supplies from industrial chemicals, including those in above-ground storage tanks like the one that leaked into the Elk River recently, affecting the water supplies of 300,000 West Virginians in nine counties for several weeks.

Besides strict requirements for above-ground tanks, the latest version passed by a state House committee would require the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to compile a list of any potentially harmful contaminants stored or in use within 25 miles of public water sources. It would also require the state's hundreds of water treatment facilities to make upgrades by ensuring they are equipped with either a secondary water intake point or an ample supply of fresh water.

The House Health Committee added those provisions to a Senate bill (373) that would require the DEP to inspect above-ground storage tanks annually and approve them based on a new set of standards. The version also would require any operator to craft a spill prevention and response plan for each tank subject to such standards. Activity at storage sites would have to be more transparent and a thorough inventory of the substances at those sites would have to be kept.

The legislation was sparked by a Jan. 9 incident in which thousands of gallons of coal-cleaning chemicals leaked from a Freedom Industries processing facility on the Elk River, a waterway from which numerous communities draw their water supplies. The clean-up was still continuing a month after the spill, with the water pipes in thousands of homes reportedly still contaminated.

Making matters worse, more than 100,000 gallons of coal slurry leaked from a different preparation facility into a tributary of West Virginia’s Kanawha River in a separate incident on Tuesday. Clean-up efforts are underway. In this case state officials have said the coal waste does not pose a threat to public water supplies.

While the spills were related to coal production, the latest version of the bill has stoked concerns over costs and exactly what industries would be forced to comply with it. Delegate Nancy Guthrie (D-Kanawha), who sponsored the committee's amendments, told NGI's Shale Daily that no input has yet been heard from the oil and gas industry and legislators are, for now, simply working to address "the breaches in our public policy.

"I think what we were trying to do was deal with the immediate crisis knowing full well that we have an energy extracting state and that a lot of the things we do can have a significant impact on those industries, as well as on the health of our citizens," Guthrie said. "Just because we didn't get to all those questions in our committee doesn't mean others won't. We were simply addressing the matters of health and safety."

Some members of the state senate floated amendments that would have exempted some industries from the proposed regulations, but such stipulations did not make it into the bill working its way through the house. Guthrie said the bill is currently in the House Judiciary Committee and it will soon make its way to the House Finance Committee. She said it was unclear when a final version would be ready for a vote in the house,but added that given the latest events, the bill could possibly be the state’s most important legislation this year.

"I don't think anybody expects the industry to shoulder the total burden of any sort of reforms that will arise from this [spill] incident," she said. "Conversely, the folks most impacted by something as dangerous as a spill or any other water pollution -- like the consumers -- shouldn't have to pay for it either.

"We can't just say, 'here we've poisoned you; that will be $4,000,'" Guthrie added. "We need to figure out how we will finance some of these reforms so the industries and citizens don't bear the burden of new costs."

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