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House Finance Committee changes chemical spill bill

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A House committee removed a requirement in legislation created after the recent chemical spill for long-term medical monitoring Monday.

It was one of several changes made Monday evening by the House Finance Committee, the fifth legislative committee to discuss Senate Bill 373.

The bill was crafted in response to the Freedom Industries chemical leak that contaminated water for 300,000 West Virginians.

The medical monitoring provision was added by the House Judiciary Committee during a nearly nine-hour meeting that stretched into the early hours of Sunday morning.

By a 12-to-11 vote Monday evening, the finance committee supported an amendment from House Minority Whip Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, to strip the provision from the bill.

"There could indeed be medical monitoring, just not required in this bill as a matter of general law," Cowles said.

Local, state and federal health officials are still working to determine whether the more than 500 people who reported health problems were actually sickened by the spill. Dr. Letitia Tierney, state health officer and commissioner for the Bureau for Public Health, told the committee such information would have been needed for successful medical monitoring.

The bill did not provide funding for the monitoring, and Tierney said she wasn't sure how much it would cost. She didn't think the bill needed a mandate for the bureau to conduct the monitoring.

"In all honesty no, because I'm going to try and do it anyway," Tierney said when asked if it needed to be included in the law.

There's a difference between trying to conduct such testing and actually doing it, said Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne.

Perdue, chairman of the House Health and Human Resources Committee, pointed to the recommendations from Kanawha-Charleston Health Department head Dr. Rahul Gaputa that such monitoring was vital.

Considering the national implications of the spill, Perdue thought the state would have found funding from the federal government or elsewhere.

"Intentions sometimes get pushed aside in favor of budgetary concerns," he said.

Delegate Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, agreed with Cowles that the unknown potential costs were a concern. Nelson was joined by six other delegates representing areas affected by the leak in opposing the provision. Those other delegates are Bob Ashley, R-Roane, Rupie Phillips, D-Logan, Ron Walters, R-Kanawha, Troy Andes, R-Putnam, Kevin Craig, D-Cabell, and Carol Miller, R-Cabell, The committee also removed a change from the judiciary committee that would have required West Virginia American Water Co. to install new early warning monitoring equipment at it's Elk River plant, the facility contaminated by the chemical leak.

The judiciary committee essentially required the site have a monitoring system to serve as an early warning system in the event of a spill, and included a list of types of contaminants the system needed to be able to detect.

A system that would meet the requirements of the bill isn't in use at any treatment plant in the country, said water company spokeswoman Laura Jordan.

"There is no one device that can test for all of these contaminants," Jordan said.

Jordan and West Virginia American Water lobbyist Louis Southworth distributed information opposing the provision in the bill before the start of the meeting.

The information doesn't make mention of a piece of equipment called a gas chromatograph, which can detect for certain organic contaminants. The equipment is installed at the company's Huntington plant but not the Elk River site, Jordan said. She said it wouldn't detect all of the contaminants included in the judiciary committee's addition to the bill.

The committee also exempted coal companies regulated under the state surface coal mining and reclamation act from several fees, passing two amendments proposed by Phillips.

He also tried to exempt such companies from a portion of the bill that would allow the Bureau for Public Health to enter, inspect or conduct sampling at sites that fall under the purview of the state Department of Environmental Protection in the bill.

"Well, they're already regulated," Phillips said, when asked why he thought the exemption was needed.

Delegate Nancy Guthrie, D-Kanawha, pointed out the chemical industry is also regulated. That regulation, and a failure to communicate, helped exacerbate the problem following the contamination of the water supply, Perdue said.

Perdue and Finance Committee Chairman Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, said they opposed the amendment In response, Phillips downplayed the danger of chemicals used at surface mining sites.

He said the chemicals used at surface mines are "not the type of chemicals that would cause a big health concern."

MCHM, the main chemical involved in the recent spill, is used in the cleaning and processing of coal. It's typically used at coal preparation sites, which are regulated under the act Phillip's referenced and would have therefore been exempt from the proposed bill under Phillips' amendment.

The amendment failed.

Another change, proposed by Delegate Kevin Craig, D-Cabell, exempts barges or similar boats because they are already regulated under federal code, Craig said. The amendment passed.

The committee also removed a requirement that every potential contaminant source in a zone surrounding a public water source must have an individual DEP stormwater permit.

Craig argued such permits would be burdensome.

The change still allows the DEP the right to require certain facilities in the zones to have the individual permits, as opposed to general stormwater permits.

Before the finance committee passed the bill, the House officially read the bill a first time. That means it can be considered on the second of three required readings once the finance committee officially approves the bill. Amendments can still be proposed during either of these stages, according to the provisions of the first reading.

If House rules aren't changes, it's likely the bill will pass Wednesday. If the Senate doesn't agree with changes to the bill, each chamber will suggest certain lawmakers participate in a conference committee.

The legislative session ends at midnight Saturday.

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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