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Chemical spill bills need work, lawmakers told

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Bills proposed in response to the Jan. 9 Elk River chemical spill are a good start, but need major changes if West Virginia wants to prevent similar incident sin the future, environmental regulator experts said Tuesday.

Bills proposed in response to the Jan. 9 Elk River chemical spill are a good start, but need major changes if West Virginia wants to prevent similar incident sin the future, environmental regulator experts said Tuesday.

Bills proposed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and by Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, should be amended to require state inspections, apply beyond above-ground chemical tanks, and give less leeway for the Department of Environmental Protection to set safety standards through rulemaking, experts said.

Pat Parenteau, an environmental law professor at Vermont Law School, reviewed the bills and said the legislation is a good start toward addressing chemical storage tank issues.

"The legislation is actually very good," Parenteau said. "It's got a lot of what I would consider a more robust regulatory scheme for these storage facilities."

But Parenteau said lawmakers should give DEP more guidance on major policy issues, such as how close such storage tanks should be allowed to be to public water systems.

"Some of these big ticket items, that's where the Legislature does need to write that into the law," Parenteau said.

Parenteau also said it is important to provide a clear mandate that the DEP ensure company-hired engineers do their jobs when certifying that storage tanks meet safety standards.

"Even with the certifications, you still have to have agencies conducting surprise inspections and you should ensure an additional layer of third-party audits," Parenteau said.

Lawmakers are scheduled to begin examining the bills in more detail as early as Wednesday, during separate meetings of the Senate Natural Resources Committee and a separate water resources panel chaired by Unger.

On Tuesday, the House Judiciary held an informal session about the chemical spill and heard a presentation from Downstream Strategies consultant Evan Hansen, who co-wrote a West Virginia Rivers Coalition report recommending a broader strategy in response to the incident.

Hansen emphasized the Freedom Industries' site was not "unregulated," as Tomblin has said. He noted the DEP had granted the facility a storm-water pollution permit, but the company apparently never filed groundwater protection and spill protection plans required by that permit.

"DEP issues these permits, and it is DEP's responsibility to enforce these permits," Hansen told lawmakers.

In its report, Hansen's firm and the Rivers Coalition recommended lawmakers force DEP to regulate industrial facilities like Freedom through more specific "individual" permits, not with less-detailed "general" authorizations like the one Freedom received. Also, the report recommended, DEP should be required to inspect all such facilities.

"This is not just an issue about Charleston," Hansen said. "This is not just an issue about above-ground storage tanks. This issue affects us all."

Pat McGinley, an environmental law professor at West Virginia University, agreed a much broader approach is needed.

"The events of the law few weeks have severely damaged West Virginians' confidence in leadership provided by the Legislature, governor, and DEP," McGinley said.

McGinley said the pending legislation "provides a core of a law that could be acceptable, but only with significant changes needed to provide the public with a level of confidence that another catastrophic water pollution event will not occur."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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