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'Eye-opening' comments lead to changes in leak bill

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Legislation introduced in the wake of the recent chemical leak will have a stronger focus on public health and communication when it comes up for a vote in a House committee Wednesday.

The need for changes became clear after testimony showed problems with response to the leak at several levels of government, said Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne.

"It's a pretty dynamic moment when you start to realize that despite the best efforts of the people that you put in charge, it didn't work very well, if at all," Perdue said.

Democrats and Republicans on the House Health and Human Resources Committee agreed to changes to Senate Bill 373. Perdue, who heads the committee, said members received a draft of the changes Monday.

Committee members from both parties met in brief caucuses after the whole committee meeting. Perdue expects the bill to pass.

He wouldn't go into details about the changes, but said the committee added sections to the bill as opposed to splitting it into two pieces of legislation.

After learning about public and private response to the leak, Perdue said the failures in communication were "eye-opening."

"I know I always assumed that, you know, if something happened, somebody would tell me and we'd start acting to fix it within a very short period of time," he said.

"And despite the best efforts of people who really were trying to do their job, that didn't happen."

Officials believe at least 10,000 gallons of crude MCHM and PPH leaked from two holes in a storage tank owned by Freedom Industries near the Elk River. Within hours of state officials discovering the leak Jan. 9, the West Virginia American Water Co. treatment plant downstream from the spill was overwhelmed by the chemical.

Several days after the spill Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and state Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, introduced legislation. Although they differed in scope, both bills created an aboveground storage tank regulatory system and outlined increased emergency preparedness.

The Senate passed Unger's bill after incorporating several aspects of Tomblin's. House Leadership sent the bill to three committees. Although that's typically considered the kiss of death for a bill, Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, and others have said it was necessary to ensure a thorough and deliberative approach.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, head of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, has said it was sometimes difficult to get information from the water company and state officials.

After hearing from the different speakers, Perdue said the "disconnect" was evident.

"Our committee has learned everybody was doing what they thought they should do, but nobody was doing what they thought they should do in concert with what somebody else thought should be done," Perdue said. 

The bill touches on potential technical methods for better communicating with the public, Perdue said.

He also said there was great concern the bill needed to pay more attention to public health. Although the state Bureau for Public Health has the authority to enforce provisions of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, Perdue said the committee is "strongly convinced" it must be reaffirmed in the bill.

There are no Republican or Democrat positions on the bill, but he said he's confident there will be a number of amendments offered.

The original bill covers two main issues, and Perdue said he understands there are many more to address.

"There's no way possible we could cover all of it during even one session, but we need to get as big a bite out of that apple as we can," Perdue said.

The committee meets at 4:15 p.m. Wednesday. 

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymailwv.com. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/Dave-Boucher1.


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