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A state legislative committee has advanced revisions to requirements governing West Virginia’s water quality standards that have drawn criticism from environmentalists.

The Legislative Rule-Making Review Committee on Dec. 9 approved modifying a rule that would weaken some of the state’s water quality standards, a modification that will be submitted to the full Legislature for consideration during the next legislative session.

The plan to update the state’s water quality standards dates back to 2018, when the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection proposed updating standards on pollutants discharged into the state’s rivers and streams. 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 that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 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.

The state Legislature adopted a bill in 2019 that required the DEP to delay presenting new standards until the 2021 legislative session after proposing updates by Apr. 1, 2020.

The DEP did that on March 31, releasing a proposal that would adopt 24 of the EPA’s 94 proposed updates, 13 of which would be weakened.

That is the revised proposal that the committee approved pushing forward on Dec. 9.

The committee, which consists of six members each from the House and Senate, approved the rule modification in a 7-4 vote. All seven committee members who approved the modification were Republicans, and all four who opposed it were Democrats. The four Democrats’ attempt to amend the rule to get rid of the updates that would weaken human health criteria was rejected in another 7-4 vote along party lines.

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.

“It’s distressing to see legislators weaken protections for the water we drink,” West Virginia Rivers Coalition Executive Director Angie Rosser wrote in an email, noting that West Virginia has the third-highest cancer death rate in the nation according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “[W]e would expect our state officials to set policy to reduce our exposure to toxins and cancer-causing chemicals, not increase our exposure.”

Rebecca R. McPhail, executive director of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, criticized the Rivers Coalition for only accepting human health criteria that become more stringent.

“If the WVMA is speaking the language of science, and the Rivers Coalition is talking policy, it will be difficult to reach consensus,” McPhail wrote in an email.

“We believe good science should drive criteria development,” Rosser wrote. “But as a matter of policy, we don’t believe water quality standards should be weakened.”