A bill that would exempt some oil and gas waste tanks close to water intake points from regulation under the Aboveground Storage Tank Act that passed in response to the 2014 Elk River chemical spill will draw additional scrutiny from lawmakers and concerned citizens before it can advance further in the House of Delegates.
The House Energy and Manufacturing Committee voted to advance the bill to the full House Tuesday after more than an hour of legislator discussion and expert testimony. The committee also voted against a move by Delegate Ed Evans, D-McDowell, to first refer the bill to the House Health and Human Resources Committee because of the potential health effects of the proposal.
But the bill was referred to the Health and Human Resources Committee anyway Wednesday, after House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, recommended doing so under a House rule that allows the speaker to refer measures to an additional committee.
“That is the right move to make,” said West Virginia Rivers Coalition Executive Director Angie Rosser, who has helped mobilize opposition to the bill, citing concerns that it would substantially increase the risk of drinking water contamination throughout West Virginia.
The Health and Human Resources Committee did not consider the bill during a meeting Wednesday.
House Bill 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 submittal of spill-prevention response plans and 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.
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 earlier that year.
Supporters of House Bill 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.
“Some of these wells are in a negative posture, in terms of revenues versus costs,” oil and gas industry lawyer Philip Reale told the House Energy and Manufacturing Committee at its meeting Tuesday.
If the bill passes, 887 oil and gas storage tanks would be exempted from the Aboveground Storage Tank Act as of last week, Ruth Porter, an environmental resources program manager for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, told the committee Tuesday. She added that violations of the act among oil and gas tanks in zones of critical concern “have been significant” but also in decline over the last several years as more operators comply with the law.
West Virginia American Water external affairs manager Megan Hannah addressed House Bill 2598 in an emailed statement Wednesday.
“We are committed to working closely with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to address HB 2598 and the proposed exemptions to the Aboveground Storage Tank Act, which we feel may lead to a direct impact on drinking water supplies and the public served by those supplies,” Hannah said, declining further comment on that potential affect.
The bill’s opponents are growing increasingly frustrated with what they feel is the Legislature’s failure to allow public input on the bill.
Rosser, of the rivers coalition, said she did not hear back after a request for a public hearing she emailed to the Energy and Manufacturing Committee chairman, Delegate Bill Anderson, R-Wood, under a House rule adopted for this session allowing for public hearings to be held “by electronic means.” West Virginia Environmental Council President Linda Frame said Anderson told a lobbyist from her organization there would not be a public hearing.
The chairman of the House Health and Human Resources Committee, Delegate Jeffrey Pack, R-Raleigh, denied a request for a public hearing on the bill from Karan Ireland, a Sierra Club representative who wanted to talk about how the 2014 Elk River chemical spill affected her, according to an email from Pack to Ireland.
In the email, Pack cites 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.
“The reason given is safety concerns about COVID-19. However, no virtual alternatives have been set up for the public,” Frame said in an email.
So advocate organizations are setting up their own — a “People’s Public Hearing” to be held at 8 a.m. Friday via Zoom that is to be nonpartisan and open to the public, with all state legislators invited to attend. The hearing will be recorded and sent to the House.
“The purpose is really just to provide a forum that’s been denied by the legislative leadership that people really want to be a part of to make sure that their voice is being heard,” Rosser said. “Because the Legislature is not providing that forum, we’re providing it.”