CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A second Senate committee moved forward Thursday with legislation aimed at creating new standards to govern above-ground chemical storage tanks in response to the Jan. 9 Elk River spill that contaminated water supplies serving 300,000 West Virginians.
The legislation, which would require tank owners to register with the state and meet standards set by the state Department of Environmental Protection, now moves to the Senate floor.
Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, said quick action is needed by the state, given what he said is a lack of information about the location of tanks and potential threats to drinking water supplies from leaks similar to the one in Charleston.
"There is a sense of urgency in order to get these facilities registered so inspections can be done," said Unger, who chairs a special legislative committee on water resources and co-sponsored the original bill.
Unger and the Tomblin administration both introduced chemical tank legislation, with Unger adding his version of a bill to implement a much broader state water resources protection plan.
The Freedom Industries site was operating under state DEP permit that mandated groundwater protection and spill prevention measures, but agency officials have said they now believe they need more specific authority to avoid a repeat of the Elk River spill.
Republican senators objected that the measure was being moved too quickly, after it was approved on Wednesday by the Senate Natural Resources Committee and on Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"I look at some parts of this bill and I worry a little bit about their overreach," said Sen. Bill Cole, R-Mercer. Cole added that he would vote for the bill, despite being concerned it would "shove more regulations down the throats" of state businesses.
The legislation action Thursday came as the state announced the latest data on the spill, showing that 533 people have been treated at 10 different hospitals, with 26 having been admitted to six different facilities.
Judiciary Committee members strengthened the bill, adding a provision that would require DEP to conduct annual inspections at all above-ground tank facilities, legislative lawyers said. Previously, the only required inspections were by company-hired engineers.
In a separate section of the bill, lawmakers pushed back the date to July 2015 for public drinking water systems to submit plans for protecting their water from chemical spills and responding to any spills that do occur.
Some lawmakers complained that the legislation could be too tough on small community water systems, and a spokeswoman for the group representing such systems agreed.
"Where is the money going to come from?" said Amy Swann, executive director of the West Virginia Rural Water System. "These systems don't have money built into their existing rates to be able to pay for a plan."
Some lawmakers also worried that it could also hurt coal companies that operate bathhouses for their employees and still manage community water systems in some coalfield communities.
The committee turned down an effort by Sen. Evan Jenkins, R-Cabell, to delay action on the legislation to more fully discussion such concerns.
Meanwhile, federal investigators said they were troubled by the surprise disclosure on Tuesday about an additional chemical that was spilled by Freedom Industries.