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Senate passes chemical storage tank bill

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Legislation to create new standards for above-ground chemical storage tanks passed without opposition Tuesday in the West Virginia Senate. The bill was introduced in response to a Jan. 9 chemical leak that left people in nine counties without potable drinking water.

"I believe this bill, if it would have been implemented, would have greatly reduced the [chance of that] incident occurring," said Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, from the Senate floor.

About 300,000 people in the Kanawha Valley were affected by a chemical leak from storage tanks at Freedom Industries -- a chemical processing facility that stored a chemical mixture of Crude MCHM and PPH along the banks of the Elk River.

As much as 10,000 gallons of the coal-processing chemical and PPH -- thought to be less toxic than MCHM, but about which little is known -- was released into the river, which supplies much of the Kanawha Valley with drinking water.

The vote was 33-0; Sen. Douglas Facemire, D-Braxton, was absent.

Senate Bill 373 requires storage tank owners and operators to develop spill prevention and response plans for each tank that would be subject for approval by the Department of Environmental Protection. Those plans must disclose the activities of the storage facilities as well as an inventory of substances kept there.

Facilities also would be required to share this information with municipal and county officials.

The bill would require the DEP to inspect tanks annually and certify that they are up to standards set forth in the bill. Tanks located upstream within 25 miles of a water intake or critical access zone would be subject to more scrutiny.

Additionally, the bill adopts a statewide water management plan that requires an inventory of the water available throughout the state.

Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam, raised concerns over entities that might be exempt from the bill, asking what companies would fall under that category.

Palumbo said the bill wasn't intended to "put in place double regulations" for those facilities that are already regulated, such as those that house hazardous materials. Though lawmakers received many requests for exemptions from companies, not all were honored.

"If we'd included them all, we would have had one water fountain left here on the main floor of the Capitol that would have been protected," Palumbo said.

Several senators who spoke in support of the bill emphasized that SB373 is a "first step" in protecting the state's waterways, especially those used as sources for drinking water. None of the lawmakers spoke against it.

Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, told colleagues, "There's a lot more questions to be answered," and expressed support for a study resolution on the spill and potential related legislation.

The bill moves to the House of Delegates, where Sen. Chris Walters, R-Putnam, suggested there be a period of time for public comment on the bill. Walters spoke at a town hall meeting Monday during which he told residents that creating legislation related to the spill should be "a deliberate, slow study process."

Legislators also were reminded Tuesday that clean water is an issue not only in the Kanawha Valley, but statewide. Raleigh County Democratic Sen. Mike Green said residents of Alpoca, Wyoming County, have been without potable water since September.

"[People] are traveling upwards of 15 to 20 miles, going to an abandoned coal mine, pumping water into their tanks, take it back to their house and boil it before they can use it," Green said. "To me, that is unacceptable."

Reach Rachel Molenda at rachel.molenda@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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