CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's top environmental regulator said Friday his agency needs more authority over all above-ground chemical storage tanks in the state -- regardless of whether the tanks are covered by industry-proposed exemptions in a bill making its way through the Legislature.
Randy Huffman, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said he hopes lawmakers will amend the bill to give the DEP authority to make all storage tanks comply with structural-integrity standards the agency will design.
Huffman made his comments after a House Judiciary Committee hearing in which lawmakers grilled a contingent of DEP staffers about a list of more than 20 exemptions to the bill's new permit requirements.
"It doesn't do any good to exempt the tanks from having to meet the integrity standards if the tanks pose the same kinds of risks as the tanks at Freedom Industries," Huffman said in an interview.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin called for passage of an above-ground storage tank safety law after the Jan. 9 leak of the coal-cleaning chemical Crude MCHM, which contaminated the Elk River drinking-water supply that serves 300,000 West Virginians.
Under the bill, the DEP would write tank safety standards and owners of tanks would have to obtain new permits from the agency and meet those safety standards. As currently written, though, broad categories of tanks -- including those at coal-mining operations and natural gas production sites -- are exempt from the permit requirements and safety standards.
The list of exemptions included in the governor's bill and a Senate-passed version now pending in the House Judiciary are similar to a list proposed to the DEP in an email message from the West Virginia Manufacturers Association.
The industry group submitted the list after a private, industry-only meeting with Tomblin administration officials held the day before the governor's bill was made public.
DEP general counsel Kristin Boggs forwarded the industry group's exemption suggestions to Peter Markham, Tomblin's counsel. When the Governor's Office released Boggs' email to Markham under the Freedom of Information Act, it withheld whatever comments Boggs made about the exemptions.
Lawmakers and supporters of the exemptions have said the point was to not duplicate regulation or permitting requirements that tanks covered by exemptions are already subject to under other state or federal regulatory programs.
However, during Thursday's Judiciary meeting, DEP officials made it clear that not all the categories of exempt tanks are subject to mandatory inspections or specific safety or integrity standards.
For example, Lewis Halstead, a deputy director of the DEP's Division of Mining and Reclamation, reminded lawmakers that his agency is mandated under state strip-mining laws to periodically inspect all coal operations. However, those inspections, Halstead said, do not include testing the structural integrity of chemical storage tanks -- including those at preparation plants that might contain coal-cleaning chemicals, such as MCHM.
Also, James Martin, director of the DEP's Office of Oil and Gas, said his agency likewise doesn't do tank integrity testing -- and isn't required to conduct periodical natural gas site inspections.
"There are times when those sites are inspected," Martin said. "There is not a routine or mandatory inspection frequency. We don't have that in our rule or statute."
Huffman said he doesn't want to make owners of tanks covered by other laws get new permits but simply wants to be able to amend their existing permits to require compliance with tank integrity standards.
Huffman said he hopes to meet soon with House Judiciary Chairman Tim Manchin, D-Marion, to discuss the matter.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.