W.Va. chemical spill bill moves to House floor

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. –The full House of Delegates Tuesday will start debating a proposal to safeguard storage facilities and public water systems against chemical spills.


The legislation comes in the wake of the Jan. 9 leak that contaminated 300,000 West Virginians’ water for days.


On Monday, an amended proposal passed the House Finance Committee, stripping out two items with uncertain price tags.


The bill no longer would require a long-term health monitoring program after the spill. It also wouldn’t require an early warning monitoring system at West Virginia American Water, the company whose water supply was tainted.


Even with those provisions removed, lawmakers don’t know how much the proposed changes could cost. The bill has changed significantly since it passed the Senate, where the Department of Environmental Protection thought it would incur another $1 million in added work and staffing needs.


The Jan. 9 spill at Freedom Industries spurred a water-use ban for up to 10 days in some neighborhoods. Though the ban has long been lifted, many residents still will only use bottled water. State officials say tanks like the ones at Freedom Industries fall into a regulatory gray area that needs more clarity in law.


The bill will likely get a vote Wednesday. The Senate and House would then need to agree on a compromised version, which has to pass by Saturday night’s end to the state legislative session.


Monday’s 13-amendment workload on the bill followed about nine hours and 60 amendments in the Judiciary Committee Sunday through early Monday. In each of the bill’s three House committee stops, several amendments were hand-written and filed during the meetings. Lawmakers didn’t get to read some amendments before casting votes. They relied on explanations by their peers and committee lawyers.


In the bill, most aboveground tanks holding more than 1,320 gallons would face yearly inspections. About 150 public water systems would have to spell out plans to protect their water supplies.


The Department of Environmental Protection would have to take an inventory of all aboveground storage tanks.


West Virginia American Water claimed the monitoring system that the bill had required would have cost millions of dollars. It would have needed to detected substances from pesticides to radioactive compounds. Delegates voted down the mandate, which West Virginia American Water called “impossible to achieve.”


Bureau of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Tierney said the state is awaiting further federal guidance on how to proceed with medical monitoring. She could not estimate how many participants or how much money would be needed for the monitoring. The requirement fell in a 12-11 vote.


Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, has suggested using $10 million in reserves for a 10-year program.


The committee also endorsed exempting some coal mining facilities from fees spelled out in the bill.


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