The Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday advanced to the full West Virginia Senate legislative rules on environmental protection that include a weakening of water quality standards for certain carcinogens, pushing the rules bundle closer to final passage.
The House of Delegates has already approved the package, which strengthens some water quality standards and is defended by the state environmental regulators who proposed them. The move came despite drawing the ire of conservationists and concerned citizens who don’t want to see any of the standards be made less stringent.
The Judiciary Committee advanced the measure after defeating an amendment by Sen. Richard Lindsay II, D-Kanawha, to adopt only updates that would make water quality standards more stringent in an 11-5 vote.
Lindsay argued that the existing standards should not be changed, since manufacturers already meet them and concluded that making them less stringent is an unnecessary risk.
“I see no reason to weaken these standards further,” Lindsay said.
But other committee members who approved the rules bundle, cited the testimony of Department of Environmental Protection Deputy Secretary Scott Mandirola. Mandirola told the committee he supports the legislation, saying it would leave the cancer risk managed by the existing standards at 1 in 1 million.
“[W]e follow the science,” Mandirola said. “If the science is good enough to make it more stringent, it’s good enough to make it less stringent.”
“I have to listen to the advice of the scientists,” said Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, the Judiciary Committee’s vice chairman.
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. Thirteen of those updates would weaken at least one category of existing standards, 11 of which, Mandirola said, would result in weakened standards for permits.
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.
Mandirola noted that the DEP had proposed updating standards for 56 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.
Department members, industrial and environmental representatives are working on updates to the remaining 32 pollutants that they have not yet come to a consensus on, according to Mandirola.
“[W]hat’s in this rule is low-hanging fruit,” Mandirola said of the 24 changes to water pollutant standards.
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.
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 that 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.
“[O]ur members just simply do not want to allow or to be exposed to more toxins and carcinogens in our drinking water supplies,” West Virginia Rivers Coalition Executive Director Angie Rosser said, accepting the scientific methodology behind the proposed updates but adding that allowing more pollutants into drinking water supplies could increase a burden on public water systems to treat and remove them that may be shifted onto ratepayers.
The committee’s vote came on World Water Day, observed annually on March 22 by the United Nations to tout the importance of fresh water.