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A public hearing on proposed revisions to requirements governing West Virginia’s water quality standards was held Monday by the House Judiciary Committee. It drew a majority of speakers against the bill, who cited environmental concerns, and a minority of industry representatives, who praised the methodology behind the proposal.

House Bill 2389 would weaken some of the state’s water quality standards and strengthen others. It was referred to the Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, Del. Moore Capito, R-Kanawha, conducted Monday morning’s Zoom hearing, which consisted of 34 speakers. Capito said the committee will take up the bill Tuesday afternoon.

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 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 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.

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.

The 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, 2020, releasing a proposal that would adopt 24 of the EPA’s 94 proposed updates, 13 of which would be weakened.

The Legislative Rule-Making Review Committee advanced the rule modification on Dec. 9.

The 26 speakers at Monday’s hearing who voiced opposition to HB 2389 argued that the water quality standards shouldn’t be weakened, since manufacturers are already following them; 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; and that the bill would repel potential out-of-state visitors and drive current residents out.

“I am totally aghast that anything to make water worse is being proposed,” said Jean Evansmore, 80, of Fayette County, a native West Virginian who came back to the state in 1994 after living most of her life elsewhere. “I don’t want to leave. I’ve been trying my damnedest to stay here, and I keep getting the feeling that people don’t give a kitty. You’re concerned about jobs. Well, who the heck wants to come here once they get beyond the beauty and learn the reality?”

Hannah Spencer discussed water contamination issues in Paden City, in Tyler and Wetzel counties, where the dry-cleaning chemical tetrachloroethylene, or PCE was found in drinking water during water testing in 2010, igniting health concerns and leading to an informal community household survey that Spencer said showed high instances of diseases and sickness, including cancer.

Tetrachloroethylene is one of the chemicals for which the DEP’s proposal would weaken human health criteria.

“Increasing the allowable limit that industries can discharge is going to exacerbate the problems our small-town public service districts face,” Spencer said.

Paul Calamita, general counsel for the West Virginia Municipal Water Quality Association, which consists of local governments, wastewater authorities and engineering firms statewide, said the association supports the DEP’s proposal, criticizing the EPA’s suggested updates as based on science that is “speculative, at best.”

The eight speakers at the hearing who expressed support for HB 2389, representing the Chemours Co., which has manufacturing sites in Belle and Washington, West Virginia, and industrial lobbyist groups, such as the West Virginia Manufacturers Association and the West Virginia Coal Association, the Gas and Oil Association of West Virginia, often used the phrase “scientifically defensible” when describing the proposed water quality standards update.

“Opponents only advocate changes that would make the criteria more stringent,” West Virginia Manufacturers Association President Rebecca McPhail said, noting that her group had recommended changes that strengthened water quality standards, in addition to some that weakened them.

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