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Statehouse Beat: Spill fills legislative void

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- From the Legislature's perspective, the nine-county water emergency provided focus for a session that otherwise seemed destined to meander its way through 60 days without clear direction.

While the governor's State of the State address generally sets the course for the legislative session -- last year, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin set public school reforms and the Justice Reinvestment Act to reduce prison overcrowding and help inmates assimilate back into society as the major goals -- his 2014 address was lacking in any initiatives.

With revenue shortfalls and elections looming for members of the House and half of the Senate, the likelihood for bold, new initiatives coming out of the 2014 session was looking dismal.

Then, the chemical spill and water emergency arrived to fill the void, with numerous public hearings, and by my count, at least a dozen bills introduced to address concerns raised by the incident.

By all accounts, the legislation now on the Senate floor to require registration, inspection and regulation of above-ground chemical storage tank farms, and to require public water systems to develop emergency plans to respond to contamination of their water sources (SB373) makes positive changes to state law.

Conversely, a bill that unanimously passed the House and is currently in a Senate Economic Development subcommittee to aid small businesses affected by the water emergency (HB4175) is pretty much just for show.

As currently drafted, the bill says that in states of emergency, the governor is authorized to determine what sorts of resources are available to assist affected businesses, and determine criteria for awarding grants, loans, waivers of tax payments, or whatever other assistance is available.

In other words, it basically gives the governor authority to do things he could already do to assist businesses during states of emergency.

My understanding is the bill, which passed the House on Jan. 16, is being held up in the Senate to allow time to look at ways to provide relief to employees of businesses forced to close during the water emergency.

While it's doubtful that four to five days of lost business will force any businesses in the affected area to go under, for employees -- particularly those in the restaurant and hospitality industries -- four to five days without pay is a serious hit.

• • •

Meanwhile, while under no circumstances is a chemical leak that compromises a region's water supply tolerable or conscionable, federal Chemical Safety Board inspector Johnnie Banks said one thing stands out about this investigation

In almost all cases when the CSB is called in to investigate industrial chemical accidents, there are fatalities involved, Banks said while testifying Friday before the legislative Joint Commission on Water Resources.

Banks cited the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion last year that killed 14, injured more than 200, including more than 160 seriously injured, and destroyed or damaged more than 150 buildings in the town of 2,800 near Waco.

According to state officials, West Virginia's water crisis resulted in no deaths, fewer than 30 hospitalizations, none critical, and just over 500 people seeking medical attention -- and the Bureau for Public Health says that many of those presented with symptoms may well be attributable to flu season, anxiety, or the inability to wash hands adequately during the emergency.

While national commentators have depicted West Virginia as being unusually lax in regulation of, and unusually tolerant of coal and chemical plants, Banks suggested that is not uncommon nationally.

He said in many places across the country, chemical plants and communities coexist for years and years, until a catastrophic event occurs -- in places like West; Geismar, La.; East Rutherford, N.J.; Richmond, Calif., and now Charleston, sites of recent CSB investigations.

"We look at this, as you aptly say it, as a warning," Banks said of the water emergency.

A warning to make sure it never happens again, since the next time, the chemicals involved could be much more toxic.

• • •

Finally, semiretired Charleston lawyer/lobbyist and former state Democratic Party Chairman George Carenbauer said he and wife, Beth, returned from a trip to India (where he said they had access to potable water throughout their visit) only to learn upon landing at Dulles International on Jan. 12 that their supposedly "first-world" hometown was in the midst of a water contamination crisis.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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