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Gazette editorial: What does WV’s latest chemical tank bill suggest for its future?

Gazette-Mail file photo
Snow dusts the West Virginia Capitol dome in January 2016.

Remember when chemicals spilled into the Elk River, the air smelled like licorice and water coming out of taps up and down the Kanawha Valley made your eyes and hands burn and itch? Apparently, some lawmakers have remembered it, too. They have been working on a complete giveaway for the oil and gas industry on storage tanks, but recently thought better of it.

After the 2014 chemical spill, lawmakers passed a law regulating aboveground storage tanks. The next year, at the industry’s request, legislators greatly weakened the law, but they kept the requirement of a simple registry — who has what tank where.

Now, oil and gas companies don’t even want the state — the people — to have that information in case of an emergency. Their tanks tend to be small, and owned by small operators, they say. Their tanks are located far from drinking water sources.

Nevertheless, the chemicals they store are not harmless. Brine that comes back up during the hydro-fracturing process could be salty, a potential hazard in a freshwater environment. Brine can be radioactive. People have good reason to ensure the safe storage and handling of these materials.

Last week, lawmakers seemed ready to give the industry everything it asked for — to remove a mandate that 26,700 oil and gas industry tanks small enough and distant from drinking water intakes not be covered by safety standards and inspections, or even to file a registration form with the state Department of Environmental Protection.

This week, members of the House Judiciary Committee rewrote the bill to keep the registry requirement for about 42,000 tanks across the state currently subject to the law. The committee’s version would still exempt about 2,300 oil and gas industry tanks from regulatory requirements.

The committee version of HB 2811 is better than the previous one, but the eagerness of some legislators to risk water quality is troubling.

Economic activity is important to everyone, no doubt about it. But activity that precludes others from also pursuing their own prosperity — as spoiling water certainly does — squanders the state’s blessings and forfeits the future West Virginians so desperately work and pray for. Legislators should get serious about that risk.

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