The House of Delegates on Friday passed a package of legislative rules on environmental protection that includes a weakening of water quality standards for certain carcinogens.
While the move has drawn the ire of conservationists and concerned citizens, the package also strengthens some water quality standards and is defended by the state environmental regulators who proposed them.
The House passed the rules bundle in a 73-24 vote, a day after overwhelmingly rejecting an amendment proposed by House Democrats, led by Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, to expand the number of pollutants targeted by the rules and only adopt updates that would make water quality standards more stringent.
Hansen read a passage from the federal Clean Water Act, which was enacted in 1972, on the House floor. The Clean Water Act set a goal that pollutants discharged into navigable waters be eliminated by 1985.
“Think about whether it’s OK to increase the amount of toxic pollutants and carcinogens when the goal is to actually eliminate them,” Hansen said.
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s proposed update of standards on pollutants into rivers and streams would adopt 24 of 94 updates proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 13 of which would weaken existing standards.
The plan to update the water quality standards, proposed by the DEP, dates back to 2018. The standards are up for DEP review every three years, per the federal Clean Water Act.
The DEP proposed updating standards for 60 pollutants, some of which hadn’t been updated since the 1980s, based on recommendations the EPA made in 2015. But the committee removed those standard updates in 2018 after pushback from the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, which has argued that the DEP should use different human health criteria.
Human health ambient water-quality criteria represent specific levels of chemicals or conditions in a body of water that are not expected to cause adverse effects to human health, per the EPA’s definition.
In 2019, the Legislature adopted a bill requiring the DEP to delay presenting new standards until the 2021 legislative session, after proposing updates by April 1, 2020. The DEP did that on March 31, 2020, releasing the proposal to adopt 24 of the EPA’s proposed updates.
The Legislative Rule-Making Review Committee advanced the rule modification in December.
DEP Deputy Secretary Scott Mandirola defended his department’s proposed water quality updates before the House Judiciary Committee last week, saying they would leave the cancer risk managed by the current standards at 1 in 1 million.
Delegate Moore Capito, R-Kanawha, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, supported the rules package and opposed House Democrats’ doomed amendment on the House floor Thursday, citing the DEP recommendations. Capito called the proposed adoption of only 24 of the EPA’s suggested human health criteria updates a “toe-in-the-water approach.”
“I think, in this case, we need to follow the science,” Capito said.
Conservationist groups, such as the West Virginia Rivers Coalition and West Virginia Environmental Council, oppose the weakening of any water quality standards.
Opponents said at a public hearing on the proposal earlier this month the standards shouldn’t be weakened, since manufacturers already are following them, and that West Virginia’s third-highest cancer death rate in the nation (per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) makes the state especially vulnerable to any weakening of those standards.