A coalition of environmental groups, plus two senators, said the vote to advance a controversial water bill last week was rushed and unfair.
In a 15-minute meeting Friday, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to advance a committee substitute of Senate Bill 167, a rules bill that addresses water pollution standards. The bill is up for a vote on the Senate floor Thursday.
“The public was given an hour notice that it was on the agenda, we were told that no testimony would be accepted, that we could submit it in writing, but only after the committee voted,” said Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.
The committee substitute removed an amendment from the Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee, essentially weakening proposed water quality standards. It also delays the state Department of Environmental Protection’s deadline to bring new updates until the 2021 legislative session.
“I didn’t vote at all, I just sat there, texting people, trying to figure out what’s going on,” said Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, who said he came back to the Judiciary committee room Friday expecting to vote on another bill.
Senators were told the committee substitute was a compromise, said Sen. Michael Romano, D-Harrison. He didn’t make it to the committee room in time Friday to vote on the bill.
“That’s just, in my book, that’s improper,” he said this week. “I didn’t realize that’s what happened. I was told everyone came to an agreement, that’s what I was told.”
It wasn’t an agreement, Rosser said.
The vote came days after a so-called stakeholder meeting, when senators heard, off the record, from environmental and industry groups. According to Rosser, public participation was limited, and the West Virginia Rivers Coalition honored the request. About 30 industry representatives were there, she said.
“Given that statements made by only a few industry representatives from the Kanawha Valley have resulted in the committee retracting standards based on the best available science to protect drinking water sources across the entire state, it is the Legislature’s responsibility to document these claims on the record and under oath,” the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, and 23 co-signing organizations, wrote in a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan.
When the proposed rules on human health criteria were first sent to the legislative rule-making committee in November, the state Department of Environmental Protection recommended the state adopt the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s updates to 60 pollutants. At the committee meeting, the West Virginia Manufacturers Association said its membership wanted more studies about the criteria, and lawmakers decided to eliminate all new proposals and updates to West Virginia’s limits on toxins in water.
The bill, which went to the Senate Judiciary Committee from the Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee, included an amendment to tighten those standards and update criteria on the 60 pollutants to match the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s 2015 recommendations. The EPA wrote to the DEP in July saying it was pleased the state would be updating its human health criteria to match federal guidelines.
“What I can’t figure out, though, [is that] the Trump administration is touting these standards, [so] I can’t imagine they’re that Draconian that it would put people out of business,” Romano said, referring to concerns that updated standards might threaten industrial jobs.
According to Karan Ireland, government affairs director for the West Virginia Environmental Council, Dow Chemical had told lawmakers the proposed rule might force the company away.
“Prior to that meeting, I’d begun hearing from unnamed legislators on both sides of the aisle saying that Dow was implying or threatening to leave, to pull out,” she said.
A lobbyist for Dow Chemical did not respond to a phone call seeking comment Wednesday. The West Virginia Manufacturers Association declined to comment on specific companies.
“All I heard, more or less, was that their facility, their argument was that what they have in place today could not detect the new parameters that the rule requires, so they could not be in compliance with the rule and that would require more money to get the equipment necessary to address the, again the detection levels that were included within the rule and that the permitting process would require thereafter,” said Sen. Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha, who proposed the Energy committee’s amendment to update all 60 guidelines and is also on the Judiciary Committee.
Senate Energy, Industry and Mining chairman Randy Smith, R-Tucker, who’s also on the Judiciary Committee, called the committee substitute a compromise.
“It was an agreement by everybody. It was basically a fairer thing to do because it doesn’t lower any water quality standards. If it would have lowered standards then I would’ve been against it, but it didn’t lower anything, it just kept them where they are for at least eight months until the DEP can make a ruling with what they’re going to do,” he said.
Rebecca McPhail, president of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, said the substitute allows “more time for the WVMA to do work we’ve asked to be allowed to do.” She noted that other states are also deferring adoption of the 2015 criteria.
“The addition of date-specific language was something we were willing to concede to demonstrate we are committed to keeping that commitment and doing so in a timely fashion,” she said.
Even though the Judiciary committee stripped the amendment he introduced, Lindsay said he was happy with the new deadline.
“There’s not this opportunity from one party or another coming in at the eleventh hour saying, ‘Hey, hey, hey, we need more time,’ which is what happened here,” Lindsay said.
But, he said, he likely wouldn’t vote to pass the Senate bill on Thursday.
“I mean, it was my amendment on Energy [committee], and I don’t think it’s right for me to walk away from it,” he said.