Bill to regulate chemical tanks passes WV Senate unanimously
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Legislation that will regulate aboveground storage tanks is on its way to becoming law.
Senate Bill 373 passed the West Virginia Senate unanimously Tuesday. The legislation requires owners or operators of aboveground storage tanks -- similar to those owned by Freedom Industries and other companies throughout the state --to register those tanks with the state and submit to yearly inspections.
Tank owners must also disclose the size of their tanks, the types of liquids those tanks hold, location of the tank and proximity to water. Engineers or other certified inspectors may scrutinize the tanks, but the state Department of Environmental Protection also will inspect tanks that are within 25 miles of a water intake.
Additionally, water providers would need to have contingency plans in place to prevent contamination or notify the public if contamination occurs and identify alternative water sources. They would need to submit source water protection plans to the Bureau for Public Health by July 1, 2015.
About a dozen senators stood Tuesday to speak in support of the bill, including Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, who said the incident could have been worse for customers of West Virginia American Water.
"This is an issue that will have national implications," he said. "We were lucky in some respects. The chemical had an odor. Imagine if it did not have an odor. It could have been weeks before we realized what was taking place."
The chemical, Crude MCHM, has a licorice-like odor. Many people are still complaining, nearly three weeks later, of their tap water bearing the smell and refuse to drink it. Wells said the University of Pittsburgh hockey team, who visited South Charleston last weekend to play West Virginia University, were told to bring their own water. Wells said he fears other groups or organizations traveling to the area may be discouraged.
"We're now tarnished to a degree," he said. "There is a perception out there the water in West Virginia is not safe to drink."
Sen. Chris Walters, R-Kanawha, pointed out the Charleston Civic Center was forced to cancel events in the wake of the spill, causing the neighboring Charleston Town Center and nearby hotels to lose business as well.
"People don't realize it, but when they have an event, the mall is flushed with people buying from restaurants, buying from stores and those stores still have to pay rent to the mall," he said.
But it's not just Kanawha County that suffers, some senators pointed out. Although Charleston is the population hub, smaller, outlying communities were just as affected.
"In Clay, they feel like they're forgotten," said Sen. Sam Cann, D-Harrison, whose district includes Clay County. "There's a piece of Clay under Queen Shoals (Public Service District). A week after this happened, they were told ... to flush."
Culloden in Cabell County also was affected, said Sen. Evan Jenkins, R-Cabell.
And officials are still unsure how much of the chemical leaked out of the Freedom Industries tank. Initial reports said 7,500 gallons of the chemical had seeped into the Elk River, but now the DEP is saying as much as 10,000 gallons may have spilled. Lawmakers have said since the Jan. 9 accident they don't want to overregulate industry, but rather close loopholes to ensure these types of accidents don't happen again.
"I stand here today as someone who wants to make sure businesses thrive in West Virginia," Wells said. "While I do not want to see regulations rammed down the throats of West Virginia businesses, I don't want to see contaminated water rammed down the throats of West Virginians, either."
And when the bill gets to the House of Delegates, Minority Leader Tim Armstead said the Legislature will get to the bottom of what happened.
"I think the concern here, it appears, is whether it was a loophole in the law itself or a failure to actually carry out inspections," Armstead said. "Whatever the reason is, and I think we'll get to the bottom of this when we look at it, I think we want to make sure that those can't occur again."
Speaker Tim Miley said the bill likely will go to the House Judiciary Committee first, as that is where many environmental bills tend to go. He said he'll meet with a bipartisan group of legislators later in the week to gather their thoughts on the bill.
"I'm going to sit down and meet with a bipartisan group of legislators to get their thoughts on the bill, to see what suggested changes or modifications, if any, they believe need to be made to the bill," Miley said.
Some lawmakers, including Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said they're concerned about the long-term implications of the legislation. Blair suggested the Legislature continue studying the effects of the bill once it becomes law. Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the intent of the bill is to close loopholes in regulatory framework, and lawmakers can go back later to review the results of studies and investigations.
"I think it's incumbent upon us to not pass this bill and forget about what happened," he said. Capitol Bureau Chief Dave Boucher contributed to this report.