As the saying goes, “You don’t miss your water until your well runs dry.” Many West Virginians learned that lesson quite literally on Jan. 9, 2014.
On that day, we learned that roughly 10,000 gallons of 4 Methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) had spilled from Freedom Industry storage tanks into the West Virginia American Water intake on the Elk River, contaminating the water of 300,000 residents.
For weeks, many of us could not drink our water, bathe or even wash our clothes and dishes. Many local businesses closed their doors, some never reopened. Many people moved away, some will never return. Jan. 9, 2014, is a date from which we have not truly fully recovered.
This date also was notable because it was the second day of the legislative session, and then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin had just given an optimistic State of the State address the evening before. So, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of residents who were affected, legislators who were serving at the time were, as well, and they responded accordingly.
They did so by enacting the Aboveground Storage Tank Act to ensure that another industrial catastrophe such as the Freedom Industry spill would not happen again. The bill was thoroughly vetted. It was triple-referenced through three major committees. A large public hearing was held. That was actually the first time I spoke on the floor of the House of Delegates, as a concerned citizen.
Following the public hearing, the House Judiciary Committee worked tirelessly until the wee hours of the morning, debating amendments to the bill. The act passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and was signed into law.
In the following session, roughly one year later, under the first Republican-led Legislature in 83 years, the weakening of ASTA began. In subsequent years, more rollbacks to the law were enacted, exempting certain tanks outside zones of critical concern from the act.
This year, the new Republican supermajority is coming back for the last bite of the apple. A new bill will exempt certain oil and gas storage tanks located closest to public water intakes from ASTA.
Let’s make it clear: We have already exempted the tanks outside of the zones of critical concern, the tanks further away from public water intakes; and now, this new legislation will deregulate the tanks within a stone’s throw of the intakes from which we get our drinking water.
Requests for public hearings on this bill have been denied, and it appears that many of my colleagues in the Legislature are betting on you forgetting about what happened on Jan. 9, 2014.
It is true that elections have consequences, and it is true that West Virginia has become a ruby-red state. But I would caution my colleagues to use their newfound supermajority wisely.
Clean water is not a partisan issue. Republicans drink water. Democrats drink water. Water is the source of all life. It would be hard to be pro-life and anti-water.
While deregulating storage tanks near our public water intakes might be lucrative for a handful of wealthy campaign donors, this move will not be popular with most voters — people who drink water.
On the morning of Jan. 9, 2014, there was plenty of blame to go around. First and foremost, Freedom Industries was at fault for its irresponsible lack of maintenance on their property. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection was partially to blame, as well, for their lax inspections of the facility.
West Virginia American Water later settled out of court for its failure to shut down the intake that pumped gallons of MCHM into our homes and businesses.
However, if House Bill 2598 passes and is signed into law by Gov. Jim Justice, when one of these tanks spills and contaminates our drinking water yet again, the blame will rest squarely on the shoulders of those who introduced, voted for and signed this legislation into law.
Let’s not forget Jan. 9, 2014. I invite you to join me in refreshing the memory of our elected representatives. Call your legislators and ask them to protect your drinking water. Ask them to vote against HB 2598.