Editorial: Water bill weak enough?

What does it take to get some meaningful action around here? A surprise chemical leak — that should have been a surprise to no one in a position to prevent it — that shuts down the local economy for days and continues to affect a nine-county area?Apparently not. A mild bill to better monitor and regulate above ground storage tanks has been written and rewritten in the Senate and now in the House. Headed to the House floor in the final days of the session, it's pretty much a mess:
  • The House Finance Committee passed a version of SB 373 on Monday, but first eliminated a provision to require a long-term state study of health impacts of the Jan. 9 spill. Delegate Meshea Poore's provision should be restored.
  • House Finance also removed a requirement for "early warning" spill sensors for West Virginia American Water's Elk River plant. The water company's scare tactics worked. On sober reflection, House members should restore this provision.
  • Finance Committee members also deleted a requirement for tougher permitting of water pollution sources near drinking water supplies. Put it back.
  • House leaders wisely removed the industry-written exemptions that Gov. Tomblin asked for and got the Senate to include in their versions of the bill. Industry lobbyists are pushing to put them back in. House Speaker Tim Miley should not allow it. Senate President Jeff Kessler should go along with a mostly exemption-free House bill.
  • Lawmakers removed language that would allow residents to force — by lawsuit if necessary — the state DEP, Bureau of Public Health or companies to comply with the bill. Sometimes, that is the only way things get done.
  • It's too secretive. Current law already allows plenty of homeland security exemptions from the state's Freedom of Information Act. West Virginians don't need more FOIA exemptions in this bill to hide important chemical safety information.
  • By some mishap — one hopes — a version of this bill would apply only to tanks that store 1,320 gallons. It should apply to facilities that store at least that amount, which could be in several tanks. Seriously, House leaders, straighten this stuff out.
  • West Virginia American Water has shown almost no interest in a second, emergency intake for its Charleston plant, so the Legislature should require the company to hire a trustworthy outside expert to report to the public on the feasibility of various options.
It's not enough to mouth concerns about public health. At some point, someone has to make sure the water is safe — and stays that way.
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