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Committee moves to weaken water standards

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Two weeks after a chemical spill contaminated the drinking water supply for 300,000 West Virginians, state lawmakers moved forward with legislation that environmental groups say weakens stream protections.

The move came during a Senate Natural Resources Committee in which lawmakers also began work on legislation proposed in response to the spill at the Freedom Industries tank farm just up the Elk River from West Virginia American Water's regional intake.

Don Garvin, lead lobbyist for the West Virginia Environmental Council, said the legislation is the fourth time since 1996 that the state has moved to soften its water quality standard for aluminum.

"It kind of speaks for itself, doesn't it?" Garvin said later. "This was an opportunity for them to vote for clean water, rather than allowing our water to be dirtied."

The legislation is a coal industry-backed move to rewrite the way West Virginia calculates its limits for aluminum.

It was proposed by the state Department of Environmental Protection, which says its sliding scale that ties allowable aluminum concentrations to the water's mineral content is justified.

Committee members also approved a substitute for a water protection and storage tank safety bill proposed last week by Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley.

The legislation would require chemical storage tank operators to register those facilities with the state and meet a set of safety standards to be drawn up later by the DEP. The bill would require companies to hire engineers to inspect their tanks, but would not require DEP itself to conduct such inspections.

Citizen groups and regulatory experts have said that neither Unger's bill nor a separate proposal from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin go far enough to prevent a recurrence of the Elk River spill.

Tomblin has referred to the Freedom Industries' site as an "unregulated" operation, despite the fact that it held a DEP permit that required groundwater and spill protection plans and gave state officials clear authority to inspect the site.

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


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