West Virginia state senators on Wednesday approved a long list of environmental rule updates, with new language giving drinking-water protection to the Kanawha River remaining intact.
The bill, approved unanimously, heads back to the House now for approval of a technical cleanup made in the Senate, but Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman said he’s confident the legislation will emerge — and pass without a broad change in the DEP’s current application of drinking- water standards for rivers and streams across West Virginia.
“It’s almost through,” Huffman said. “We’re hopeful it’s going to make it.”
Passage of the bill would be a victory for Huffman, who proposed adding drinking-water protection to the Kanawha and has spoken strongly against industry lobbyist efforts to use that proposal as a vehicle for eliminating the DEP’s longstanding policy of generally applying drinking-water pollution limits to all waterways across the state.
Last year, Huffman proposed to extend so-called “Category A” drinking-water pollution limits to a local stretch of the Kanawha that runs through Charleston, saying it would help provide a backup supply for West Virginia American Water’s regional plant on the Elk River in the event of another chemical leak like the January 2014 one at Freedom Industries.
Under the Clean Water Act, waterways are designated for different uses, such as drinking, fishing and contact recreation, like swimming. Different water-quality limits are set based on the designated uses of a particular stream. The designated use for drinking water is “Category A.” Those water-quality standards are, in turn, used to establish pollution discharge limits the state sets for each business.
For years, West Virginia regulators have applied the Category A water pollution standards to almost all streams across the state, except for a few locations with exemptions. One of those is a 72-mile stretch of the Kanawha River from just upstream of Belle through Charleston and on to the Ohio River.
West Virginia American officials have said their current estimates show it would cost $50 million to put a new drinking-water intake on the portion of the Kanawha that fronts Charleston, compared to $150 million if the intake had to be located farther upstream, above Belle, in an area already listed as Category A.
The DEP rules bill, containing a bundle of various agency regulatory updates, easily passed the House in late February but not before the Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee slipped into the water-quality standards bill language that requires the DEP to at least consider the sort of change in statewide drinking- water standards industry lobbyists have been promoting all session.
Under the Judiciary’s language, the DEP would be required to “consider” during its next review of water quality standards, “potential alternative applications for the Category A drinking water use designation to the waters of the state, taking into consideration stream flow, depth, and distance to a public water intake.”
The law requires that the DEP review its Clean Water Act standards every three years, and the next review is to be completed in 2017. Previous triennial reviews, though, have started with public comment periods that occurred two years before the review was due to be filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, so the process mandated by the bill could start as soon as later this year.
In recent triennial reviews, industry lobby groups have urged the DEP to abandon its statewide application of Category A rules, and Huffman expects that the DEP would have heard from those organizations on the issue again this time, regardless of what the legislation says.
“That language is not inconsistent with what would happen anyway,” Huffman said.
However, Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, said the language was a surprise addition that many observers and some lawmakers didn’t realize was being made by the House Judiciary Committee.
“It feels like it’s just setting the stage,” Rosser said. “It concerns me, because it reveals their agenda.”
Rosser said citizen groups will have to watch closely the triennial review at the DEP and future examinations of the water quality standards by lawmakers.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.