A virtual public hearing was held Friday on a bill that would exempt about 900 oil and gas waste tanks close to water intake points from regulation. It featured vehement opposition to the measure and frustration that two committees in the House of Delegates have denied official public hearings on the proposal.
The “People’s Public Hearing,” conducted via Zoom teleconference, drew about 75 attendees and 25 speakers, all of whom voiced opposition to House Bill 2598, which would rollback the Aboveground Storage Tank Act the Legislature passed in response to the 2014 Elk River chemical spill.
The House Energy and Manufacturing Committee voted Tuesday to advance the bill to the full House before Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, referred the legislation to the Health and Human Resources Committee on Wednesday.
HB 2598 would remove tanks containing 210 barrels or less of “brine water or other fluids produced in connection with hydrocarbon production activities” in zones of critical concern from regulation under the Aboveground Storage Tank Act.
The act requires registration and certified inspection of such tanks, as well as the submission of spill-prevention response plans. It also defines zones of critical concern as corridors along streams within a watershed that need close scrutiny because of a nearby surface water intake point and its susceptibility to potential contaminants.
The length of zones of critical concern is based on a five-hour water-travel time in streams to the water intake, plus an additional quarter-mile below the intake. A zone’s width is 1,000 feet from each bank of the principal stream and 500 feet from each tributary bank draining into the principal stream.
State lawmakers joined conservationists and concerned West Virginians to criticize the bill during the hearing, which advocates said would be recorded and sent to the House.
“It’s ridiculous to roll this part of the Aboveground Storage Tank Act back,” said Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, the top-ranking Democrat on the Health and Human Resources Committee. Pushkin said he expects the committee to consider the bill Tuesday or Thursday.
“Safe drinking water is not a Democratic issue or Republican issue,” he said. “It’s a human issue.”
Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, who led an unsuccessful fight against the bill in the House Energy and Manufacturing Committee, and Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, also weighed in against the measure during Friday’s hearing.
“I just can’t explain why the Legislature would want to create danger zones right at intake areas in our streams,” Rowe said. “It amazes me.”
The Legislature passed the Aboveground Storage Tank Act in 2014 following the Elk River chemical spill that contaminated the drinking water supply for hundreds of thousands of people in a nine-county area around Charleston. The spill caused many Charleston-area businesses to shut down and sent a handful of people to hospitals earlier that year.
Supporters of HB 2598 in the oil and gas industry say the bill would avoid adverse environmental effects and instead relieve struggling operators incurring what in some cases are prohibitive costs of complying with the regulation in its current form.
But a few speakers at Friday’s hearing said the proposed rollback of the Aboveground Storage Tank Act would cause enough unrest over environmental concerns to drive young people out of West Virginia, and many more feared a repeat of the 2014 chemical spill.
Charleston native Morgan King, a senior at Capital High School in 2014, said she was shocked by the spill and saw the subsequent passage of the Aboveground Storage Tank Act as reason to feel secure that a similar crisis wouldn’t happen again, inspiring her to pursue studies in civil and environmental engineering and public policy.
“I’ve learned, though, since that the threat of water inequities in our state is far more complex and unfortunately political than my naïve 17-year-old self believed,” King said. “The actual loss [from] this policy if another spill occurs is the risk of the health of thousands upon thousands of lives and costs to our local businesses if they have to shut down again, such as in 2014.”
“This bill is a license to kill,” Page-Kincaid Public Service District board member John David said.
Reintroduced after stalling in last year’s legislative session as House Bill 4079 following its introduction on the sixth anniversary of the 2014 chemical spill, HB 2598 is sponsored by 10 Republicans, including lead sponsor Delegate John R. Kelly, R-Wood.
The Legislature has carved out an exemption for these same tanks before, doing so in 2017 but for only those outside of zones of critical concern at that time.
The exemptions started in 2015, when the Legislature scaled back the Aboveground Storage Tank Act to only require inspection of tanks that contain 50,000 gallons or more, contain hazardous material or are located within a zone of critical concern.
“We have seen it get chipped away until it’s a mere shell of what it originated as, and this is our last stand when it comes to these oil and gas tanks,” West Virginia Rivers Coalition Executive Director Angie Rosser said. “We’ve compromised, compromised, compromised to keep these zones of critical concern protected, because they are where it is most crucial to provide oversight to protect our public drinking water.”
The bill’s opponents have been frustrated with what they feel is the Legislature’s failure to allow public input on it, citing denials of their requests for a public hearing by the Energy and Manufacturing Committee chairman, Delegate Bill Anderson, R-Wood, and the Health and Human Resources Committee chairman, Delegate Jeffrey Pack, R-Raleigh.
In an email denying a request for a public hearing on the bill from Karan Ireland, who spoke out against the bill during Friday’s hearing, Pack cited a change to House Rule 84 saying the applicability of the rule requiring requests for a public hearing on a bill pending before a House committee to be granted is eliminated for the 2021 legislative session, even though the rule also allows for electronically held public hearings.
Neither Pack nor Anderson could be reached for comment for this report.
“I apologize that this is the way we have to do public hearings right now and that a piece of legislation that has the capacity to negatively affect so many people in West Virginia ... was twice denied a public hearing,” Pushkin said. “To me, that is completely ridiculous.”