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Water pollution bill up for WV House floor vote

A bill that would allow increased discharges of pollution into West Virginia’s rivers and streams has moved forward again, setting the stage for an up-or-down vote Wednesday in the House of Delegates.

On Tuesday, the House considered and approved just one amendment to House Bill 2506, agreeing to add language to require companies to note the location of overlapping pollution “mixing zones” on signs that they already are mandated to post to mark Clean Water Act discharge locations along waterways.

As the bill moved quickly toward a House vote, Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Austin Caperton, during a public appearance Monday evening in Morgantown, said he didn’t know if the DEP is supporting the legislation or not.

Caperton, during a meeting sponsored by the Mon Group of the W.Va. Sierra Club and the WVU Sierra Student Coalition, was asked if he is concerned about the legislation.

“I’d have to consult my water person to determine whether I am concerned about that one,” Caperton said, according to an audio recording of the meeting. “If I knew a little bit more about it, I would be able to speak to it. I don’t know that we’ve been asked to take a position on that particular bill.”

Previously, a report provided to House Judiciary Committee members by a legislative attorney had indicated that key changes in state water pollution rules included in the bill were “agreed-to language between the industry and [the] DEP.

Neither the DEP nor anyone else following the bill has publicly disputed that description. Jake Glance, the DEP’s public information officer, did not respond Tuesday to a request seeking clarification of the agency’s position on the bill.

During a public hearing in the House chamber Monday morning, Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher spoke first and strongly supported the bill, providing a clear indication of the Justice administration’s support.

The heart of the legislation, pushed by the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, would change the way the DEP calculates the amount of water pollution allowed under discharge permits for various industries.

The DEP would switch from using a low-flow figure for streams to an average-flow figure, called “harmonic mean,” a move that would increase not the state’s actual in-stream pollution limits, but the discharges that chemical plants and other industrial sites are allowed under DEP-approved permits.

While supporters are pushing the bill as a way to bring new jobs into the state, lawmakers have not been provided any data or specific examples of how the legislation would improve economic development efforts. And neither the DEP nor lawmakers have offered any detailed analysis of exactly how much the bill would increase the pollution allowed in the state’s rivers and streams or how such increases might affect public health.

Last year, the DEP supported a change in state rules that would adopt the harmonic mean method for cancer-causing chemicals, but rejected an industry proposal to apply the method to non-carcinogens.

The DEP also opposed an industry proposal to allow pollution dischargers to have overlapping mixing zones, where water quality standards don’t apply to allow stream dilution to reduce them to acceptable levels further downstream.

On Tuesday, while the legislation was up for amendment stage in the House, Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, proposed a change he’d hoped would warn swimmers and other users of streams that water within those overlapping mixing zones could violate legal pollution limits.

“It’s fairly simple,” Pushkin said of his proposal. “It’s extra protections for our citizens that we are here to represent.”

Pushkin’s proposal would have required signs that proclaimed, “Warning — Pollution mixing zone, stream pollution in this area exceeds state water quality standards. SWIM AT YOUR OWN RISK!”

But Delegate Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, successfully amended Pushkin’s measure so that the bill now before the House says only that discharges must be indicated on signs that they already post marking discharge locations “that mixing zones overlap in a particular vicinity.” House members voted 58-35 for Hanshaw’s version of the warning signs.

If the bill passes the House, it then moves to the Senate.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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