Log Out

Rockefeller, Manchin push water safety bill

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With thousands of West Virginians still weary of the water coming from their taps, finding a way to prevent an emergency like last week's chemical spill is shaping legislation at the local and federal level.

West Virginia's U.S. Senators Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin, both Democrats, worked together on a measure that focuses on storage tanks and keeping a community's drinking water safe.

"We have very little oversight of above-ground storage facilities, and this basically brings everything to fruition that we need to do that," Manchin said Friday evening in a phone interview.

"The bottom line is, there should be some procedures (of) how we know what's close to our water systems..."

The federal measure, known as the Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Act, is also sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. While the bill itself was not yet released, press releases and a fact sheet offer a glimpse of what's included.

The bill has four components.

It requires states to inspect above-ground chemical storage facilities: Freedom Industries, which owned the facility that leaked into the Elk River, was not required to have permits just for storing chemicals.

There was public outrage after the spill when the state Department of Environmental Protection announced it had not inspected the site since at least 1991. While the DEP has since found a slew of inspections and reports -- a spokesman said it took time to comb through records and find them -- calls for better regulation of such facilities persist.

The bill would require a state entity to inspect facilities housing chemicals regularly: any site near a water source would be inspected every three years, and all others every five years.

Manchin said he expects the DEP of each state's equivalent would conduct the inspections.

The second section requires those in the chemical industry to develop an emergency response plan. The plan must be approved by the state, and must meet guidelines to be established in the bill.

Those guidelines include: construction standards; leak detection and spill and overfill requirements; emergency response and communication plans; and notifying the EPA, state officials and public water systems what chemicals are housed at a facility.

Communication in response to the spill is also facing a fair share of scrutiny.

Freedom did file the annual reports it's required to with the state and local officials, indicating what chemicals were on site. However, local officials have said the forms aren't always used in creating emergency response plans.

West Virginia American Water Co., the company with a water treatment center about 1.5 miles downstream from the spill, was initially informed incorrectly about which chemical spilled. Its filtration system was overwhelmed by 4 p.m. Jan. 9, and it notified public officials later that day.

The bill also "allows" the state to recover costs for responding to an emergency. Manchin said the money would come from the party responsible for the event.

Private lawyers filed more than 20 lawsuits in state and federal courts on behalf of a variety of local clients. Freedom filed Friday for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, putting those cases on hold.

Several officials have already said there's no way Freedom could cover the cost borne by the 300,000 people, businesses and others affected by the spill.

"If we can prevent this from happening, that solves all of the problems," Manchin noted.

Lastly, the measure gives water systems "tools" to respond to emergencies. It would require facilities to give chemical inventory reports to water companies if the storage facility is near a treatment plant.

It also "allows" the drinking water systems to act in emergency situations to stop an immediate threat to people receiving the water.

West Virginia American Water pumped contaminated water through 1,700-miles of pipeline across nine counties. Some officials and advocate believe state code already requires utilities to report such problems. Nothing stops them from doing that, Manchin acknowledged.

It's important for companies in that situation to not be swayed by the fear of being sued and to let emergency response officials know about a problem, he said.

"If they're afraid of litigation, afraid of anything else, they shouldn't be afraid," Manchin said.

"When all's said and done (it's in their) power to keep the public safe and out of harms way."

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and state lawmakers have pledged legislation that addresses similar regulatory issues. Tomblin announced late Friday his bill would be introduced next week in the state Senate and House of Delegates.

Rockefeller co-sponsored two other bills as well that deal with issues pertain to the state receiving compensation for responding to a crisis.

One bill requires companies that spill a material considered dangerous but not "hazardous" -- the crude MCHM that leaked into the Elk River didn't qualify as "extremely hazardous" under state code--to pay for cleanup costs.Under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act -- known as the Superfund -- companies that pollute don't have to pay for cleaning costs if the chemical isn't considered hazardous, according to Rockefeller's press release.

The second bill doubles the amount of money available in the Superfund for cleaning costs, from $2 million to $4 million.

"Our families and businesses have suffered tremendously and have borne significant costs already," Rockefeller said in the release. .

"This bill corrects a glaring hole in our law that leaves residents vulnerable to shouldering the cleanup costs associated with a non-hazardous chemical spill," he continued, in reference to the first bill.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, is a cosponsor. A 233,000 gallon molasses spill last year in Honolulu prompted him to help craft the measures.

Rockefeller also called on Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water, to provide more information about how the company determined an area was ready to start flushing its pipes.

The "clearing" process -- using a map with red and blue zones -- has been questioned by the community. The water company announced today that all affected areas were able to flush their pipes, the theory being that once pipes are flushed the water should be safe.

Many residents have complained their water still smells like black licorice, the telltale odor of crude MCHM, after their area has been cleared and they've flushed their systems.

"Mr. McIntyre, please be aware that I intend to do everything in my power as the senior United States senator from West Virginia to ease the burden on my constituents and safeguard the health of their families," Rockefeller wrote in his letter.

"Part of that effort includes finding out exactly what steps your company may or may not be taking to keep them safe."

The senator asked three questions: are tests showing crude MCHM levels rising in certain areas; if so, what's the company doing to protect the public from "unsafe water"; and what steps are in place to further eliminate the chemical from getting into the water supply.

Rockefeller asked McIntyre to respond by Tuesday.  Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or Follow him at

Show All Comments Hide All Comments

User Comments

More News