Citizens from local and statewide groups turned out Tuesday evening to support a Tomblin administration proposal to redesignate the Kanawha River as a potential source for public drinking water.
Speaking in favor of the state Department of Environmental Protection were members of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, the West Virginia-Citizen Action Group, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and People Concerned About Chemical Safety.
“This policy is promising news,” said Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. “It moves us toward a cleaner Kanawha River and toward a safer and more secure water supply.”
Rosser was among more than 30 people who turned out to attend a DEP public hearing on the proposal. Nine of those who attended spoke at the hearing, and eight of those speakers supported the agency, praising the DEP for taking the initiative on the issue following the January chemical leak into the Elk River.
“We think it’s a step in the right direction,” said Julie Archer of WV-CAG.
Technically, what the DEP has proposed to do is remove an exemption in the state’s water quality standards that excludes part of the Kanawha River from the general rule that West Virginia rivers and streams be kept clean enough for use as public drinking water.
Under the rules, all waterways are designated for different uses, such as drinking, fishing and contact recreation, like swimming. Different water quality limits for different pollutants are set based on those designated uses for different waterways. The drinking-water use is called “Category A.”
In West Virginia, unless there is a specific exemption, the DEP is supposed to apply Category A standards on all portions of all streams. For many years, various industry groups have tried unsuccessfully to have regulators or the Legislature change that general rule.
Being designated for a particular use, such as drinking water, doesn’t mean that a waterway attains that use or is clean enough for that particular use. And the DEP change alone would not allow a drinking water intake on the Kanawha. New intakes would need approval from the state’s Bureau for Public Health and its Public Service Commission. However, DEP Secretary Randy Huffman has touted the proposal to re-designate the Kanawha as one response to the January chemical leak in the Elk River, when many residents were surprised to learn that West Virginia American Water had only one source for the region’s drinking water system that serves 300,000 people.
At Tuesday’s hearing, West Virginia Manufacturers Association President Rebecca Randolph was the only speaker who opposed the DEP proposal. Randolph said the proposal could increase costs for area businesses if it leads to tougher permit limits for discharging pollution into the Kanawha. Randolph said the DEP has not fully evaluated the potential costs, or shown that the proposal will really provide sufficient environmental benefits to warrant such costs.
Two leaders of another business group, the West Virginia Sustainable Business Council, spoke in favor of the DEP proposal. They said cleaner water and less pollution could help some businesses, and that the business community should look at the Kanawha River as more than just somewhere to dump their pollution.
“This is a good example of how we can take a bad situation — the water crisis — and turn it into a catalyst for change,” said the council’s Nancy Ward.
The DEP proposal focuses on a 72-mile stretch of the Kanawha River starting just upstream from Belle that for years has been exempt from Category A use and protections. The exact reasons aren’t clear, but exemption means any drinking water intake on the Kanawha would, without the DEP’s proposal changed, have to be located far upstream from the water company’s treatment plant on the Elk. West Virginia American has said preliminary estimates put the cost of piping water that far at $70 million to $105 million. Water company officials have said they need to more closely examine the DEP proposal.
The most recent DEP water quality assessment reports for the Kanawha still list parts of the river downstream from Belle as “impaired, citing violations of standards for fecal coliform and fish consumption advisories related to elevated fish tissue concentrations of PCBs. Advisories also warn not to eat certain fish from the Kanawha because of dioxin contamination.
Citizen groups at Tuesday’s meeting noted with some irony that, while proposing to reclassify that Kanawha River as a potential drinking water source, DEP officials also were proposing a change for the Charleston Sanitary Board to provide what amounts to a facility-specific variance for a water quality standard to protect aquatic life from copper toxicity. The proposal, if approved, would set a standard that would allow about five times more copper, DEP officials have said.
Citizens groups said they were concerned about that DEP proposal and were planning to submit more detailed comments about it in writing.
Written public comments on both DEP proposals will be accepted until 5 p.m. on July 21. They can be mailed to Kevin Coyne at the DEP’s water quality standards office at DEP headquarters, 601 57th St., S.E., Charleston, 25304, or emailed to email@example.com.
Reach Ken Ward