Senate leadership questions House Speaker's actions on chemical spill bill
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State Senate leaders are concerned the House of Delegates might delay or split apart the bill crafted in response to the recent Elk River chemical spill.
The bill, which calls for increased scrutiny of aboveground chemical storage facilities, passed a unanimous Senate on Tuesday. The House must now review and pass it before Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin can sign it into law.
After receiving the bill from the Senate, House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, assigned three committees -- the Health and Human Resources, Judiciary and Finance committees -- to review and sign off on the bill before it can go before the full House for a vote.
However, this so-called "triple reference" is often considered a kiss of death for legislation.
Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, and Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, said they were surprised to see it.
Kessler said a triple reference is typically a "death knell" for a bill. Unger expressed similar concerns.
Miley said he spoke Thursday with Kessler to assure him the House is committed to passing effective legislation. While Miley acknowledged the triple reference's traditional use, he said he's using it in this case to ensure a "thorough and deliberative review" of the measure.
"I don't play games," Miley said. "If there's a bill the House is not going to consider, we don't need to triple reference it to get the message out there we're not going to consider it."
The House typically doesn't start working on Senate bills until much later in the session to meet internal legislative deadlines. The Legislature's rules require bills be passed by their house of origin by the 50th day of the legislative session, so the House and Senate usually focus on their own bills before moving on to those sent over by the other.
Kessler said he would give Miley "the benefit of the doubt." Unger agreed and said he did not think Miley was trying to completely derail the bill.
However, when the Senate received several bills passed by the House on Thursday, Kessler decided to triple reference two of them.
Was it a reaction to Miley's decision?
"Oh, I don't think so," Kessler said. "We just thought they needed a good, thorough review as well."
As passed by the Senate, Senate Bill 373 creates guidelines regulating aboveground storage tanks. It also outlines a framework to increase emergency preparedness in the event a spill similar to the one that occurred Jan. 9 at Freedom Industries happens again.
The bill is slated to go to the House Health and Human Resources Committee first, followed then by the Judiciary and Finance committees.
"Our whole goal is to make sure we get out a good piece of legislation that is not a result of overreacting," Miley said.
"Sometimes when you overreact, you do a couple of things: you miss and fail to address the areas of critical need, but sometimes you also over-regulate as well."
Unger, who is the lead sponsor of the Senate bill, questioned whether Miley and the House had an appropriate sense of urgency. He said he welcomes productive changes and suggestions from the House, but thinks action is needed as soon as possible to prevent another spill.
"When a person walks in to the emergency room, and has a bullet wound and they're bleeding to death, you don't sit there and do a thorough review of 'How in the world did they get bleeding?'" Unger said.
"No, you treat the wound, you patch it up, you close that loophole -- then you start looking at the other aspects of it.
"We have a bullet wound here," Unger said. "It's bleeding. It's a definite, gaping hole in our system that we need to close quickly in order so that this doesn't happen again."
Unger pointed to a recent move by the House to speed consideration of a bill that provides assistance to small businesses affected by the water outage. He said the House should be able to finish its work on the storage tank bill and pass it by the end of next week.
That's unlikely to happen.
"I don't know that we will get it out as quickly as the Senate did," Miley said.
Miley said the West Virginia Manufacturers Association has already spoken with him about some specific concerns they have with the Senate's proposal.
Kessler said the manufacturers association, as well as the state coal association, support the Senate's bill.
Miley said the manufacturers' concerns had to do with the wording in a specific portion of the bill.
"They felt like they didn't have time to sit down with senators on the Senate side to address their concerns because of the speed with which the Senate felt it had to get that bill out," Miley said.
He said that doesn't mean the House will make any changes to this portion of the bill, but said it's something that might need to be discussed.
The bill says any tank that remains in one spot for more than 60 days is not considered mobile. This part of the bill was added to make sure companies don't circumvent regulations on stationary storage tanks by parking tanker trucks on their property, Unger said.
Rebecca Randolph, executive director of the manufacturers association, said there are still questions about how this part of the bill will be enforced.
Acknowledging she spoke with Miley about it, she said the association just wants a better understanding of how this portion of the bill will work.
"I think it's an overstatement to say that we have an issue with the bill," Randolph said.
There is still room to learn more about the bill and potentially suggest changes if needed, she said.
However, House Health Committee Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne, said there's been talk of potentially larger changes to the measure.
"Essentially, we had the governor's bill first and then they took Senator Unger's bill and rolled it into that," Perdue said. "Now there's some discussion that it might be more appropriate to pull them apart again."
Tomblin initially proposed a bill that addressed regulation of aboveground storage tanks. Unger and others in the Senate said they thought it was too narrow in scope, choosing instead to incorporate pieces of it into the Senate bill.
Kessler said he had also heard there was discussion of a split. He said he didn't think that was a good idea.
"I'm afraid a delay unnecessarily would only continue to create anxiety in the public that the government's not doing anything and not taking the threat to our water supply seriously," Kessler said.
"I'm hopeful we don't get bogged down trying to find all the answers, because we're not going to find them all in this bill today," he said.
Perdue said he is still reviewing the bill and wants to learn more before deciding whether a split is appropriate.
House lawmakers won't take any action on the bill until after a public hearing on the matter. That hearing is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Monday in the House chamber.
Miley and Perdue pointed out the Senate held no such hearing and said it would be a valuable way to hear what the public wants included in the measure.
Other speakers are scheduled to present information on the matter to Perdue's committee before Monday's hearing. Perdue said the speakers will focus on the communication between government agencies in the event something threatens public health will be a focus.
"I think that's maybe the most important thing: trying to make sure the agencies that have...the greatest ability to impact the issue are able to be collaborative at every level," Perdue said.
"We're all well aware that prevention is by far our best ally," Perdue said. "And if that means we need to engage both (the state Department of Environmental Protection) and public health in a more profound way at the upstream end, that's the ultimate aim."
Perdue said there's a chance the health committee -- if it thinks it has enough information -- could advance the bill Wednesday evening. But he emphasized that is not set in stone.