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Chemical tank bill moves to Senate floor

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 Wednesday by the Senate Natural Resources Committee and 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.

"This week's revelations are of concern about another chemical that was released into the water supply," said Daniel Horowitz, managing director of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

Horowitz said the CSB would include a review of the matter in its ongoing investigation of the chemical Crude MCHM by Freedom Industries.

"We're going to look into it, along with all of the other safety issues this incident raises," Horowitz said, in an appearance on "The Diane Rehm Show" on National Public Radio.

Horowitz said that CSB investigators have found that chemical storage tanks at the Elk River site wee "very old" and "designed to a very old standard, without leak detection or secondary containment."

In a joint press release late Thursday afternoon, the state Department of Health and Human Resources and the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety said that testing for PPH from water samples taken after the spill showed no detectable levels of the chemical.

State teams retested 30 samples drawn since Jan. 10 from the intake and outflow at West Virginia American's treatment plant, using a method that would detect down to 2 parts per million of PPH, the press release said. All 30 samples came back with "no detect" readings, the release said.

When word that PPH was also in the Freedom Industries tank was first reported, state officials said Tuesday evening that it would take them four to five hours to complete testing for that chemical.

The press release said, though, that the retesting was concluded earlier in the day Thursday. State officials offered no explanation for the delay from their initial timeframe for the results.

According to the release, the state "plans to pursue" additional testing using a detection limit of down to 1 part per million.

Also, the release said that "a review of water quality tests routinely conducted at the treatment plant show no sign of phenol, a chemical byproduct that should appear if PPH reacted with water treatment processes."

The state's news release said that the PPH results "indicate no health concerns, based on the latest guidance" from the CDC.

Asked what sort of screening level the state based that statement on, and how the state knew that any levels below the 2-part-per-million PPH detection limit were not harmful, DHHR spokeswoman Allison Adler suggested checking with the CDC.

Barbara Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the CDC, said her agency has not set a health screening level for PPH.

Also Thursday, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin issued a statement calling for the Freedom Industries' facility to be torn down and the site "completely remediated."

Already, though, DEP officials issued an order two weeks ago, the day after the spill, that required Freedom to remove all materials from all storage tanks at the site.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials, in a prepared response to questions the Gazette submitted on Jan. 15, referred questions about the site cleanup to the state DEP.

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


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