Come next month’s 2020 legislative session, West Virginians may see their lawmakers voting on a rare piece of legislation — one that would improve drinking water standards statewide.
The bill, a Clean Drinking Water Act for West Virginia, is being drafted, according to Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, who would be its lead sponsor. Hansen said it will address contamination in West Virginia’s waters tied to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS — man-made chemicals commonly linked to different types of cancers, thyroid issues, weakened immune systems and other diseases.
“We were ground zero for a lot of these issues and poisons,” Hansen said. “We owe it to the people affected in the past and still being affected now to do something about it.”
Bills regarding water quality, infrastructure and protection — or funding and upgrades for such — are rarely seen at the Legislature.
The state’s Department of Environmental Protection reviews water quality standards every three years, and will update criteria for pollution rules based on federal standards and evolved scientific findings. But for new standards to be implemented, lawmakers must approve the changes.
Most of West Virginia’s water quality rules have not been updated since the 1980s.
Lawmakers batted the rules back and forth through amendments, mostly on party lines, with Democrats for adopting new standards and Republicans against.
The West Virginia Clean Drinking Water Act would be different than legislation on water rules. It would take a “source water protection approach,” said Hansen, who works as an environmental scientist. This means it’s less focused on setting limits for pollutants, and more about monitoring what chemicals are where, and who is responsible for them.
From there, companies can be held accountable for damage on West Virginia’s waterways. The data on the proliferation of previously un- or under-monitored chemicals would also be used to justify future changes to the state’s water rules, Hansen said.
PFAS have been manufactured in numerous industries for more than 70 years. Despite the dangers associated with them, they are largely unregulated in the United States.
In West Virginia, they are most notoriously tied to the DuPont plant near Parkersburg, where residents were exposed to the chemical C8 for years, an account chronicled in the recently released film starring Mark Ruffalo, “Dark Waters.”
People living in the area experienced increased rates of testicular cancer, kidney cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis and pregnancy-induced hypertension. The chemical conglomerate was sued by more than 3,000 Mid-Ohio Valley residents, leading to it paying nearly $700 million in settlements.
PFAS are persistent chemicals, meaning they don’t break down and instead build up as humans or environments are exposed to them more and more. Outside of Parkersburg, the landscape of PFAS in West Virginia is essentially uncharted, according the national Environmental Working Group.
Currently, Martinsburg residents are participating in blood testing by the EPA to evaluate exposure to PFAS due to the city’s proximity to Shepherd Field Air National Guard Base, where nearby groundwater was likely contaminated by PFAS from firefighting foam used at the base in 2016.
Hansen said that a Clean Drinking Water Act would strengthen reporting mechanisms for companies around West Virginia. Facilities that use or produce any PFAS chemicals would disclose that to the DEP, which would be required to monitor any discharges into waterways before reporting findings directly to the Legislature.
“It may take extra time, new technology, maybe some additional funding, but it’s doable and it’s necessary,” Hansen said.
Another part of Hansen’s efforts to improve water in the state involves reintroducing a constitutional amendment. Initially introduced in 2019 as House Joint Resolution 25, the amendment would add a section to the West Virginia Bill of Rights stating that the state’s residents have “a right to clean air, pure water and the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.” The joint resolution died in committee.
If this amendment was on the books, Hansen said, the state would have had more power to hold corporations accountable when they poison residents, as in the case with DuPont in Parkersburg and the 2014 Elk River chemical spill.
“It would have been another tool for citizens to use in their fight,” Hansen said. “If something happens in the future, we want to make sure this language exists.”
Past attempts to strengthen water quality at the legislature, including last session’s battle, has been met with fierce, yet murky, opposition from the West Virginia Manufacturers Association and other industry groups.
Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, an advocacy group focused on maintaining clean, healthy waterways in the state, said a crucial part of this legislation — in addition to incentivizing clean industries — would be to ensure West Virginians do not pay for industrial pollution or its consequences.
“Companies will have to tell us what is in our water,” Rosser said. “What we are going to get out of this is the chance of transparency.”
That, Hansen said, is an aspect of one of the more delicate parts of this legislation. The burden of raising water standards, holding corporations accountable and testing and cleaning groundwater sources needs to be feasible for small public water systems, which serve thousands of West Virginians.
Historically, as water quality standards change, small water systems see their operational expenses rise, as they must pay to train operators, purchase more chemicals and perform more testing.
On the inverse, if groundwater is cleaner, public water systems can save money on treatment and maintenance.
Hansen said the language of the bill will be realistic to meet the limits of cash-strapped municipalities and public service districts, and that, where possible, corporations will be on the line to pay for any fallout from their pollution.
“We don’t want to overburden small water systems — we know a lot of them are challenged,” Hansen said. “We need to be realistic about what’s done, but we need to start. At the very least, we need to get the science done and do the research to see what more is needed for long-term health.”