Lawmaker to introduce bill to raise chemical safety measures
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A Jefferson County lawmaker plans to introduce a bill that incorporates safety guidelines the U.S. Chemical Safety Board recommended years ago.
Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, said he believes the recommendations could prevent emergencies like the recent spill that left 300,000 West Virginians without safe drinking water. The Chemical Safety Board and the Kanawha County Commission agree.
"How can we in West Virginia address the kind of concerns that we should have had after Bhopal?" Skinner said Friday morning.
"And quite frankly, I don't know that we've done that today because people have poisoned our water system. How have we addressed it?"
Skinner was referencing a 1984 gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, that instantly killed more than 2,000 people.
The CSB references the tragedy - and the fact the only spot in the United States where the chemical is stored is Institute - in reports concerning two previous investigations of deadly chemical events in the Kanawha Valley.
After investigating a 2008 explosion at Bayer CropScience in Institute and a 2010 leak at the DuPont facility in Belle, the CSB recommended a series of changes for the local and state levels.
One of the key recommendations was to give the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department the authority to establish a Hazardous Chemical Release Prevention Program.
The CSB is again in Charleston, arriving a few days after the MCHM leak at Freedom Industries that resulted in drinking water contamination. It's one of many agencies investigating the leak.
In a presentation before a state legislative committee recently, CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso pointed out lawmakers have largely ignored recommendations made after the agency's last two investigations in the area.
"We contact them and say, 'This is what we recommend' and we write letters to them and say, 'What are your actions about this,' " Moure-Eraso told the Charleston Gazette.
Similar to the CSB recommendations made after the Bayer and DuPont incidents, Skinner's bill will be "loosely based" on a hazardous safety material ordinance put in place in California's Contra Costa County.
Enacted in 1999, the ordinance requires facilities to provide detailed safety plans to local health officials.
In turn, those officials can audit the plans and periodically conduct safety assessments. Facilities pay a fee to the local health department to fund the program, according to the CSB.
"The report notes a significant decrease in the number of 'major chemical accidents and releases' at covered facilities, from 11 incidents in 2001 to zero incidents in 2009," states the CSB report on the Bayer CropSciences explosion, citing an audit of the California program.
In the past, state officials have rebuffed such a plan, citing concerns of increased regulation and whether creating a local agency or program was the best option to help prevent chemical incidents.
However, local officials have continued to be adamant about implementing the CSB's recommendations.
Dr. Rahul Gupta, Kanawha-Charleston Health Department director, and Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper have spoken in favor of creating a hazardous chemical prevention program.
In 2011, Gupta and Carper both made statements supporting such a program, but the necessary bills never made it through the state Legislature.
Both are again pushing for the creation of the program.
At a town hall meeting sponsored by WCHS-TV last week, Gupta said he has repeatedly sent communications to the state Department of Health and Human Resources and to local legislators over the past few years supporting the creation of a Hazardous Chemical Release Prevention Program.
"I call this a preventable crisis," Gupta said last week of the Freedom Industries leak. "Those recommendations were evidence-based."
Carper has also publicly repeated his stance supporting the program.
"What I said then hasn't changed that much," Carper said last Friday, referencing comments he made in 2011. "I was in favor of (creating a Hazardous Chemical Release Prevention Program) because obviously no one was doing it."
Carper said despite local support in 2011, "there was no interest . . . at the statehouse."
"The state refused," he said.
Carper also said the decision to triple-reference the aboveground storage tank bill in the House of Delegates seemed strange. He had expected the bill would go through the House "like a bat out of a cave."
Carper said he acknowledges concern any new regulations could have on job creation, but said protecting the public needs to be a priority.
"I support at least a serious discussion about what needs to protect people," he said.
Transitioning such a program from the county level to the state level is tricky, Skinner said. He acknowledged plenty of entities - from inside and outside of the government - will want to have a say in how the program is created, administered and enforced.
"When engaged in this type of work, you're alerting the biggest companies in the world who operate here in West Virginia," Skinner said.
"But the important part is you can't operate in West Virginia if you kill all the people off by poisoning their water."
When thinking about potentially creating the bill, Skinner said he focused first on enforcement.
It's not a good idea to put the state Department of Environmental Protection in charge of enforcement, Skinner said.
"Obviously there are a vast number of questions as to whether the DEP can do its job right now," Skinner said.
"Giving them something else to do right now when there are questions about whether they have kept up with what they are required to do doesn't make sense."
He thought homeland security officials would be better prepared for enforcement, with state health officials overseeing the program.
The CSB calls on the local or state health departments to create such programs, as well as a hazardous chemical release prevention program.
"If the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services were to implement a program similar to the California safety ordinance, it would likely improve stakeholder participation and awareness, and improve emergency planning and accident prevention," the 2008 report states.
While such changes do require action from state lawmakers, Skinner questioned Kanawha County's response to the recent spill. Discussing what emergency preparedness measures were in place, and finding out exactly what else is needed, will be beneficial in crafting a bill that helps every county, he said.
"These are not big, broad policy issues. Does Kanawha County government know what risks are in Kanawha County? I don't think they do," Skinner said.
"We need to make sure that they have all of the statutory authority to be able to demand from every entity that holds chemicals and other toxic materials on site that could get into the water system."
In a perfect world Skinner said the bill would be introduced by the end of the week. Other legislative work - including the aboveground storage tank regulation bill currently in the House -research and simply writing the bill could delay introduction though, he said.
The last day to introduce bills in the House or Senate is Feb. 17.