Measure would require on-surface facility inspections
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The chemical holding tank that leaked 4-methylcyclohexane methanol into the Elk River and tainted the water supply serving 300,000 people reportedly hadn't been inspected by the Department of Environmental Protection since the 1990s.
That lack of oversight has raised some questions about reporting mechanisms and how often facilities such as Freedom Industries are inspected.
Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, is preparing to introduce legislation that will require facilities that store any liquid except water on surface to register with the state and submit to periodic inspections. Unger said a minimum amount of liquid would be identified in the legislation and will not apply to things such as individuals' gas tanks.
"We regulate underground facilities, but we don't regulate on surface, and that's what happened with Freedom Industries," said Unger, who is chairman of the Legislature's Oversight Commission on State Water Resources.
The bill would amend the state's Water Resource Protection Act by updating provisions regarding the state's water resource management plan.
Unger said the bill would add two new elements to that plan.
"First, here will be a record of what is upstream and what type of chemicals are there," Unger said. "The second is regular inspections of facilities to ensure they're properly maintained and there isn't leakage."
Unger said the legislation would not just focus on facilities located near rivers. He said even chemical leaks at inland plants could seep into groundwater and eventually make it into the water source.
The chemical leak didn't just startle people in the nine counties affected, Unger said. He said health departments in the Eastern Panhandle were inundated with calls from people concerned about their water supply.
"People all over the state were scared about this," he said. "It shows our vulnerability. We need to do a lot more (to protect our water.)"
Unger said he doesn't anticipate business and industry rejecting the legislation, should it become law. If those companies are in compliance, he said, they should have nothing to hide and be willing to submit to inspections.
"It's not a major burden on them to have regular inspections," Unger said. "Even the industry - those who are conscious of it - I think they would accept the fact they would have to register if they have a certain type of liquid and also have inspections to make sure that structure is being properly maintained. It doesn't inhibit their activity. They still would be able to do Marcellus drilling.
"We need to know what's out there and we need to ensure our citizens that proper maintenance is being done on those structures so it doesn't leak into people's water source," he said.
The Commission on State Water Resources will meet Wednesday morning, where Unger will present the legislation. He's already talked to Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, who supports the initiative.
"He's wanting to do whatever we can to ensure the safety of our water resource for the people of West Virginia," Unger said. "He was very pleased with the work we've been doing so far."
Unger also planned to speak with members of the House of Delegates and get their support for the legislation. He also spoke with Department of Environmental Protection and state Division of Homeland Security officials about the legislation, and they offered their support.
"This has been a wake-up call," Unger said. "If it had been more toxic, it could have been more devastating. We lived through this. We've survived it. Now it's up to us to learn from it and make the changes so it never happens again."