W.Va. water plan costs exceed allocated money
If West Virginia lawmakers want the state health department to operate a bulked-up water protection program, they’ll likely need to provide the department hundreds of thousands of additional dollars.
Legislation created following the massive chemical leak and water contamination in January focuses largely on two areas: regulating aboveground storage tanks and ensuring more oversight of public water sources.
Ann Goldberg, director of public health regulations for the state Bureau for Public Health, told state lawmakers Tuesday the bureau is focused on moving forward with the improved Source Water Protection Plan created in the bill.
Although the bureau already has information from water providers about potential contaminants near their treatment facilities, the new law calls for updated plans that address more safety issues. Those issues include exploring alternate water sources and multiple water intakes, preparing sites for an emergency, storage capacity throughout the system and more information about the day-to-day operations of treatment plants.
The bureau is in the process of creating a template form that utilities could use and investing in the technology needed to create such a new database for the 124 water providers in the state, Goldberg said. The bureau is also supposed to allocate grant funding to smaller water providers who don’t think they’ll have the resources to adequately update such a plan.
The bill included $1.5 million in one-time money for these costs. Right now, the bureau and DHHR estimate the program will cost $1.8 million in its first year, $1.2 million in its second and almost $1 million in its third, Goldberg said.
She emphasized the numbers are estimates that likely will change. Grant funding is one of the largest portions included in each year of those estimates; if water sources determine they don’t need the grants, Goldberg acknowledged costs could go down considerably.
Recurring costs for new employees aren’t likely to go away. She said the bureau would need more people to create the new program, help water utilities initially comply with the program and regularly inspect utilities to make sure they’re following the law.
That’s expected to cost $300,000 a year, she said.
“We’re not self-funded,” Goldberg added. “There’s no funding on this side of the ledger.”
The bill did give the bureau and the Department of Environmental Protection the ability to levy more stringent fines for violations of the new law. Specifically, if the bureau determines the public water supplier has broken any portion of the new law, it can fine the violator up to $5,000 each day. If the entity breaks the law on purpose, the maximum daily fine jumps to $10,000.
That money is supposed to go into the Safe Drinking Water Fund, and can only be used by the commissioner of the bureau “to provide technical assistance to public water systems,” according to the law.
In response to a question about fining water systems who aren’t able to meet all the criterion of the law, Goldberg downplayed the prospects of levying heavy fees.
“I really can’t see us extracting penalties out of poor, unequipped water systems,” Goldberg said.
“That was put in to try and give us more arrows in the quiver, but we typically don’t shoot many arrows,” she added later, in reference to the significantly increased amount the bureau is able to fine a violator.
The bureau is still working on completing the template for the Source Water Protection Plan. Utilities have until July 2016 to submit the plan, but the bureau is encouraging some of the larger utilities to submit their plans in the summer of 2015.
Registration in the aboveground storage tank regulatory program — also created by the new law — must be completed by October.
About 280 tanks have been registered since the DEP opened the program last week, DEP spokeswoman Kelley Gillenwater said. About 120 tank owners have requested registration information as well, she said, adding there could be some overlap between the registered tanks and tank owner.
“Most of those registered so far are in Monongalia County (13.7 percent) followed by Doddridge County (13.3),” she said, referring to the tanks.
The DEP expects the number of registered tanks to “rise dramatically” in the next couple weeks, she said. Once the state has a better idea of how many tank owners are in the state, officials say they’ll be able to set the administrative fee for the program included in the law.
Administrators say they want to find a number that will allow them to help make the registry self-sufficient. The DEP has the ability to levy significant fees for facilities who violate the terms of the registry.
Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.