CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A year after a toxic leak contaminated drinking water for 300,000 residents, West Virginia lawmakers are considering a series of proposals that would weaken a new chemical tank safety law, remove stronger pollution protections for streams across the state, and protect the coal industry from enforcement actions over violations of water quality standards.
Members of a coalition of citizen groups called the West Virginia Safe Water Roundtable held a news conference Monday at the Capitol to draw attention to their concerns and to urge lawmakers not to roll back the state’s clean water laws.
On Tuesday, one broad bill backed by the West Virginia Coal Association is up for passage in the Senate, and efforts to attach industry-backed amendments to a Department of Environmental Protection rules bill are expected in a House committee.
“It’s a critical time,” said Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.
The DEP rules bill, on the agenda Tuesdaythis morning before the House Industry and Labor Committee, proposes to add drinking water protections to the part of the Kanawha River that flows through downtown Charleston.
Last week in the Senate, a committee began considering an amendment from the GOP-controlled majority that would not only remove the drinking water protections the DEP wants for the Kanwaha from the Senate version of the bill, but also end the DEP’s longstanding policy of enforcing the state’s so-called “Category A” drinking water standards on all rivers and streams across the state.
DEP Secretary Randy Huffman has pushed for drinking water standards to be applied to the Kanawha, to provide for a possible location for a secondary intake for West Virginia American Water’s Kanawha Valley plant on the Elk River, and Huffman has also spoken strongly against the West Virginia Manufacturers Association’s effort to end the statewide application of drinking water rules.
Meanwhile, the Senate is set during Tuesday’stoday’s floor session to consider passage of the “Coal Jobs and Safety Act” being promoted by the coal association as a way to make West Virginia’s mine operators more competitive as cheap natural gas, competition from other coal regions, the mining out of quality reserves and tougher federal environmental standards chip away at the local industry.
“The act is designed to encourage and foster a strong and robust coal industry in order to maintain our jobs and improve our ability to compete with coal from other states and countries,” the coal association said in a document outlining its legislative goals for the year.
Among other things, the bill (SB 357) as aimed at stopping successful citizen suits brought over mining company violations of Clean Water Act standards where those standards were not specifically written into state DEP permits and prohibiting the DEP from incorporating those standards into future coal permits. It also includes a long-sought change the coal industry wants to West Virginia’s water quality limit for aluminum.
The legislation has come under criticism, though, from the United Mine Workers union, which says it also weakens safety standards for coal miners.
“As long as miners continue to die in West Virginia’s mines, we need to be looking for ways to strengthen health and safety protections, not gut them,” UMW President Cecil Roberts said Friday.
Companion bills in both houses (HB 2574 and SB 423) would exempt from the state’s new chemical tank safety standards the vast majority of aboveground storage tanks that registered with the DEP to comply with the law passed in the wake of the January 2014 leak at the Freedom Industries facility on the Elk River.
“Legislators on both sides of the aisle are introduction bills that would effectively gut the protections that were gained for us last year,” Rosser said.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.