Despite the national attention and widespread public outcry sparked by the Freedom Industries chemical spill in 2014, the manufacturing, mining and chemical industries have been successful in pressing for legislation that further weakens protections of public drinking water supplies in West Virginia.
That effort continues in the 2016 legislative session, with proposals under consideration that would allow for the dumping of more pollution in our rivers and roll back standards for chemical storage tanks.
The West Virginia Public Water Supply Study Commission issued its annual recommendations to the Legislature on how to improve drinking water protections. To date, only one recommendation has resulted in introduced legislation – SB 625 – a bill critical to the public’s ability to meaningfully participate in local source water protection planning.
The West Virginia Rivers Coalition and our partners are fighting hard at the Capitol right now to maintain public health and environmental protections. Unfortunately, we’re outnumbered. The strong lobbying efforts of manufacturing, mining and chemical industries seem to be holding greater sway with many of our elected officials than the health concerns of local residents.
On Friday, the West Virginia Manufacturers’ Association requested a meeting with Department of Environmental Protection to outline five proposals to revise water quality standards. Each one would allow more pollution in our water supplies across the state.
Meanwhile, history continues to repeat itself. On Saturday, a spill of heat transfer oil at a natural gas processing facility in Wetzel County caused the issuance of a “Do Not Use” order for the drinking water of the residents of Pine Grove. And last week, the towns of Reedy and Spencer were forced to deal with exceedances of haloacetic acids, a cancer-causing toxin, in their drinking water.
Against this backdrop of continued chemical releases, infrastructure breakdowns and threats to the health of West Virginians, here’s an update on some of the major water protection efforts currently before legislators.
The Regulatory Reform Act
On Tuesday night, SB 619, the Regulatory Reform Act, passed out of the Senate Government Organization Committee and now moves to the full Senate for a vote. If passed as it is, this bill would make monumental changes to the process and evaluation of existing requirements that lean heavily toward paring back regulations and protecting industry from “undue” burden.
There is a lot to process and a lot of moving parts in this bill that deals with regulations across the board – including environmental, health, professional licensing, and much more. How successful advocates can be in providing a counterbalance to the weight of industry interests in the matter of their own regulation will go a long way to deciding how safe we will all be from the threat of continued environmental contamination in the future.
Water Quality Standards and Protections
On Friday, the bundle of rules – HB 4053 – that included revisions to water quality standards, fracking regulations, and aboveground storage tank regulations passed the full House of Delegates. Now it goes through the same process in the Senate.
No additional exemptions or rollbacks in water protections were added to the bill. Delegate Stephen Skinner’s amendment that restores protections for new tanks installed near drinking water intakes or on karst terrain passed.
Delegate Tim Manchin made a compelling argument for an amendment to keep illegal tanks from receiving deliveries of chemicals, but it narrowly failed in committee.
Similarly, Delegate Barbara Fleischauer presented an amendment to better deal with fracking wastewater pits, but it did not garner enough votes in committee to see it pass.
Revisions to these regulations governing water quality will allow more toxic Aluminum and Selenium in rivers and streams.
The proposed rule change will drastically weaken the Aluminum criteria. The revisions equate to greater than a 12-fold and 40-fold increase over the current criteria for acute and chronic dissolved Aluminum toxicity to aquatic life respectively. It would make West Virginia’s standard the most permissive of toxic aluminum pollution in the nation.
The proposed revision to the Selenium standard would rely on fish tissue sampling to determine violations. The sad irony here is, unfortunately, mining and other sources of pollution have already degraded or eliminated fish populations in many areas, meaning these watersheds may never receive any protection against Selenium poisoning.
Weakening the standard will make it much more difficult to hold companies accountable for the damage they cause. Eventually, the pollution will have to be treated, and the cost is likely to fall on the taxpayers.
Revisions would also roll back tank inspections and quality standards. Two additional exemptions of classes of tanks for the coal industry were added in committee. The revisions would allow for voluntary compliance with standards and abandon regular inspections of tanks by certified personnel.
Public Access to Water Source Information
SB 625 seeks to restore public access to information about threats to local drinking water supplies. Last year’s revisions to the Aboveground Storage Tank Act appear to limit what information water systems can share with the general public, even information that is already in the public domain.
SB 625 clarifies that public water systems may release information about potential contaminant sources that are already subject to public disclosure when engaging the public in source water protection planning.
SB 625 is expected to be taken up by the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday and hopefully will pass the full Senate before it has to go through the committee process in the House.
Land Conservation Tax Credit Act
A broad coalition of private nonprofit land trusts, farmland protection boards and mineral owners support SB 554 which would establish a framework of a tax credit program for property owners who place conservation easements on their land or donate land in fee for conservation purposes.
The goal of the bill is to incentivize private efforts to conserve West Virginia’s important lands and waters.
SB 554 would have no immediate fiscal impact as it is only the first step in setting up the framework for a land conservation tax credit program.
SB 554 is still awaiting discussion by the Senate Finance Committee.