CHARLESTON, WV -- Lawmakers worked late into the night Wednesday debating a variety of potential changes to the bill crafted in response to last month's Freedom Industries chemical spill.The House Health and Human Resources Committee adopted several amendments to the bill during a four-hour meeting before finally passing it.Committee chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne, said crafting the measure has been the hardest thing he and his colleagues have had to do during his time in the Legislature.Within days of discovering the spill on Jan. 9, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and state Senate leaders both created bills regulating aboveground storage tanks and outlining extra emergency preparedness and response guidelines.
Senate lawmakers decided to take some of Tomblin's proposals and insert them into their bill before passing it and sending it to the House two weeks ago.The House Health Committee held a public hearing and heard several presentations from local, state and national officials last week before taking the bill up Wednesday evening.As often happens, the committee used a "strike-and-insert" amendment to modify large portions and add more sections.Among the changes, the committee brought back the "zone of critical concern" concept.Under the change, the state Department of Environmental Protection must inspect aboveground storage tanks located within 25 miles upstream and a quarter-mile downstream from a public water intake.The zone also includes land extending laterally 1,000 feet along each bank of the body of water along which the intake sits.The DEP must also inventory all potential contaminants — not just storage tanks — within that zone.
The state Bureau of Public Health can increase or decrease the area within a zone, depending on what is found in a new surface water protection assessment.Though it was discussed, an amendment to add a medical monitoring program for areas affected by the chemical spill failed to pass.Dr. Rahul Gupta, head of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, reiterated his position that monitoring is vital to understanding the potential effects the chemicals had on the community.The more time that passes before monitoring, the more likely bias or memory issues could change the accuracy of the program, Gupta said.
Other new health aspects of the bill include allowing the state Bureau for Public Health to levy substantially larger fees for violations of rules, from $50 to as much as $5,000 in some cases.Although already outlined in federal code, the bill makes clear that the state bureau has authority over public water utility sources.
Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, amended the bill to require government officials to notify the public within 30 minutes of an emergency like the recent chemical spill.Although current laws are designed for such notifications, state attorneys have said they did not apply in this case because of the chemicals involved and other factors.The committee did not significantly alter the Senate-crafted aboveground storage tank portion of the bill.Each storage facility will still need to hire a certified engineer to annually inspect storage tanks, leak detection systems and secondary containment structures.
A 2002 state assessment found the Freedom site was one of nearly 60 that put West Virginia American Water's Charleston treatment plant at high susceptibility for contamination.The House bill delays a requirement that utilities create a source water protection plan within a year, pushing the deadline to July 1, 2016.There were fears it could cost too much to make the plan in one year, committee counsel Charles Roskovensky said.Once the plan is created, each public water utility must submit it to the Bureau for Public Health. Local health departments must be consulted and a public hearing held on the plan before it is adopted, though the bureau will have final say.The plan in the modified House bill contains eight components, and mirrors some aspects of the Senate bill.Water providers must have a documented contingency plan in case of contamination. West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre has repeatedly said the company didn't know anything about the chemicals stored at Freedom until the day of the spill.The bill originally said the utility must also include a discussion of the water company's ability to isolate or divert contaminated water from its intake.Lane successfully amended the bill to require water utilities to have either an alternative water source or three to five days worth of stored water. The West Virginia American Water plant affected by the spill has no other source for water than the Elk River.Other provisions include a plan to identify what a water utility will do in the event of a spill, including how it will notify and coordinate recovery efforts with public officials.The bill still highlights the need for continued communication between government agencies when they receive information about utilities or respond to an emergency. The bill calls on the Bureau for Public Health, DEP and other agencies to better coordinate their plans and procedures.The bill's next stop is the House Judiciary Committee. From there it will go to the House Finance Committee before moving to the House floor for a vote. If the bill passes the full House, the Senate would still need to approve the changes.Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.