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Officials discuss possible law changes after leak

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Five days after a chemical leak tainted the water supply in nine West Virginia counties, lawmakers are asking whether new or updated laws are needed.

Legislators in both the state Senate and House of Delegates are looking into the incident and what loopholes may have prevented the leak from being reported earlier. The company, Freedom Industries, allegedly knew of the leak hours before it was reported.

Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, wants to amend the State Water Resources Management Plan to reflect needed changes. Unger, who chairs the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on State Water Resources, said he has talked to National Guard and state Department of Homeland Security officials about their ideas.

"This is a wake up call," Unger said. "It could have been a whole lot worse than it was. It also demonstrated our vulnerability as far as our water supplies, not just in the Kanawha Valley but in West Virginia."

In addition to the legislation, Unger is calling for an investigation into the spill, noting the investigation isn't to prosecute Freedom Industries, but to determine what happened and to find ways to keep it from happening in the future.

"We're going to have to launch an investigation to see what happened, how it happened and look at putting provisions in place so that it never happens again," Unger said.

Several federal and state investigations are already underway.

Unger said his focus over the next week would be getting to the bottom of what happened and restoring consumer confidence. He said he's working both privately and publicly to address the issue in the short and long term.

"And then of course putting in place provisions to protect our water resources so that this never happens again in West Virginia and that people will have confidence that their water resource is safe to drink and bathe in," he said.

But House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, was slow to speculate on any potential legislation that may come about as a result of the leak. He said until state and local agencies present the findings of their own investigations, it may be a bit premature to talk about making new laws.

"Whenever you have a calamitous event like we've had, there is going to be an immediate outcry for changes to be made and legislation to be enacted to accomplish those changes," he said. "I don't know enough about how or why this happened to give you a knee jerk reaction as to what legislation if any needs to be implemented to prevent it from happening again." Miley said the Legislature would work with the Governor's Office in a bipartisan manner to determine the problem and what changes need to be made to prevent future occurrences.

Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, asked Miley to form a special committee to investigate the leak. Lane said his primary concern is the safety of residents, but he does welcome the economic growth brought by the coal and chemical industries.

"As you know, roughly 300,000 West Virginians are suffering right now from a lack of usable water due to a chemical leak which rendered the water unsafe," Lane wrote in a letter to the speaker.

"I believe we have a duty to determine how this accident happened."

Lane said he expects the businesses involved to assist the Legislature in any investigation that takes place.

Businesses were hit hard by the leak and its aftermath. Many restaurants were forced to close Thursday, leaving employees without pay and the business without any revenue.

Secretary of State Natalie Tennant is calling on the Legislature to include relief for businesses and employees affected by the leak in the creation of a Small Business Relief Fund, which House leadership said it planned to include in legislation to be introduced soon.

"I've visited with many of our workers out on the water lines, and I know that even one day out of work can keep them from making rent or paying their bills, especially our restaurant employees making ends meet on minimum wage and tips," Tennant said in a news release. Tennant wrote to both Miley and Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, urging them to include small businesses in the legislation.

Kessler said the senate created preliminary committees that are going research any potential changes.

"Warehousing may need to be included in the definition of those that need to early report. We think about it only being production or manufacturing, but warehousing is equally vulnerable. That's another thing if it's near water intake."

Sen. Chris Walters, R-Kanawha, said any legislation should include provisions safeguarding the water supply from chemicals. He said chemical holding companies or facilities should report to a water company any chemicals that facility works with if it is banked along a water supply source or tributary.

The companies should work together to create an emergency plan in case a similar incident happens again.

"Right now, we have to be progressively thinking and see what we can do to prevent this from ever happening again," Walters said.


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