They’re at it again. Under the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic, when citizens can’t rally in numbers, the West Virginia Legislature is poised to gut one of the key protections of the Aboveground Storage Tank Act, enacted after the 2014 water crisis.
Remember the crisis? When 300,000 West Virginians had no access to safe water? Apparently, the Legislature does not. The bill is pushed by tank owners and backed by industry. The reason? As Charlie Burd, of the Gas and Oil Association of West Virginia, says, according to Gazette-Mail reporter Mike Tony, the regulation is too burdensome. Translation: We can’t be bothered.
We can’t be bothered to operate responsibly, they’re telling us. We can’t be bothered to make sure dangerous chemicals don’t foul drinking water supplies. We can’t be bothered to make an honest dollar — one with a reasonable return that does not force people to live under the specter of mass contamination.
The bill in question is House Bill 2598. It would exempt more than 1,000 oil and gas waste tanks — tanks near drinking water supplies across 27 counties — from Aboveground Storage Tank Act regulation. That’s right. The Legislature wants to make our water less safe by throwing out common-sense rules.
Oil and gas waste tanks contain a mixture of produced water and crude oil. The mixture is composed of a variety of pollutants that can contaminate drinking water supplies. This is true for surface water systems and surface water-influenced groundwater systems, or SWIGs. There are about 20 SWIG systems along the Ohio River.
The Aboveground Storage Tank Act helps ensure that tanks in “zones of critical concern” are properly inspected and maintained. These zones are areas along streams located upstream from a public water system’s intake or well. This seems sensible. Rather than having the public pay for leaks, spills and disasters in the water supply, let’s inspect tanks closest to drinking water supply more often, and keep them in working order.
That’s it. Seriously.
How can inspection and maintenance of a business asset be too burdensome? This is the same old trope industry rolls out every time it can’t be bothered. Installing seat belts in every car, the auto industry said, would make cars unaffordable. Too burdensome. The food industry said the same thing when the FDA required companies to state the ingredients on packaging so that people actually can know what they are eating. Too burdensome. It’s the same story every time.
We all face regulatory “burdens” every day. Like the 70 miles per hour speed limit on our wide-open interstates. Rules for safe food storage and handling in restaurants. Restricting hunting to certain seasons.
We accept these rules as minor inconveniences because we know, in our great big West Virginia hearts, that we do unto others as we would have them to unto ourselves. And that’s what the aboveground storage tank rules do, especially in the Ohio River Valley, where the vast majority are located. Call it the Good Neighbor Rule. It ensures people that their government cares and takes its responsibilities seriously. That their government is up to the task of fulfilling its most basic function: to protect the health and safety of its citizens. We need these protections.
In nearly laughable displays of feigned outrage, tank owners might level the ultimate threat — leaving the state altogether if they don’t get their free pass. For good. Take their ball and go home.
Good riddance, I say. Bye bye. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. We don’t need you in West Virginia. We don’t want you in West Virginia, if you’re not willing to play by the rules. Another company, one that accepts the responsibility that comes with handling and storing dangerous chemicals, will step in and find a way to make an honest buck. Now that’s the free market. And then maybe other industries that value clean air, safe water and responsive government will move in to create 21st-century jobs.
I keep hoping that, one day, our Legislature will have the courage to acknowledge one existential fact: that the states with the weakest environmental and public health and safety rules are consistently among the poorest. Exempting tanks near drinking water supplies will make us not only less safe, but poorer. A slap on both cheeks to people who live in the Ohio Valley and across West Virginia.