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House panel passes chemical storage tank bill

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia House Health Committee passed a bill Wednesday night to regulate above-ground chemical storage tanks, and to require water utilities to submit plans to deal with possible contaminations like last month's Elk River chemical spill, but with significant differences from the bill that unanimously passed the state Senate last month.

The bill passed unanimously after nearly four hours of discussion. Committee Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne, called it perhaps the toughest thing his committee has ever had to do.

The House version differs from the Senate version in that it creates a new section of code requiring the Department of Environmental Protection to compile and maintain a list of all potential water contaminants - not just contaminants from above-ground storage tanks - within about 25 miles of public water sources.

The committee approved an amendment that would require every water treatment plant in West Virginia - there are more than 300 - to have either a secondary water intake point or three to five days worth of untreated water in storage.

Had such stipulations been in place before the Jan. 9 chemical leak, West Virginia American Water Company perhaps could have shutdown its primary water intake and kept the coal-cleaning chemical Crude MCHM from contaminating the water system of 300,000 West Virginians.

A spokeswoman for the water company said that she did not know how much such a requirement would cost at any of the company's nine treatment plants in the state.

The bill's sponsors freely admitted that they had no idea how much the requirement would cost, but that that could be considered when the bill makes its way to the Finance Committee.

"There isn't one person in this room that knows how much any of this is going to cost," said Delegate Nancy Guthrie, D-Kanawha, the amendment's lead sponsor. "The water company that provides water to 300,000 people doesn't really know how much it's going to cost, smaller utilities don't know how much its going to cost. I think this amendment would guarantee that we would get some costs of what it would look like."

Several delegates worried that the costs of the amendment could overwhelm smaller utilities or be passed on to ratepayers by larger utilities such as West Virginia American.

Richard Hitt, counsel for the state Public Service Commission, testified that the water utilities in the state range from "very poor financial shape to fairly decent financial shape."

The House version of the bill still requires annual inspection of above-ground storage tanks - with many exemptions. It requires every water utility to create a source water protection plan, which would document how it would respond to a water contamination.

An amendment from Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, that would have given local health departments funding to begin immediate medical monitoring of long-term health impacts from the chemical leak was defeated.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, told the committee that it was urgent to begin screening for a medical monitoring program as soon as possible. He said that the actual monitoring didn't need to begin immediately, but they needed to identify people to be included in a study.

Gupta said that health departments need to identify "high dose" consumers - who began using the water immediately after do not use orders were lifted - as opposed to "low dose" consumers who waited much longer to use the water.

But if individuals are not identified very soon, it becomes difficult for people to remember how much water they used and when, a phenomenon Gupta called recall bias.

"You are introducing statistical bias by every day that goes on" without identifying people for the study, Gupta said.

Gupta said that unless health departments receive additional funding they will be unable to begin the process.

Once the individuals are identified, health departments can collect data on them for a number of years.

Gupta said that he thinks the number of people who have reported symptoms at hospitals - more than 500 - is just the tip of the iceberg, and a larger number have been "toughing it out." He emphasized that we have no data from animal studies to determine if the chemical accumulates in bodily organs, and if so, in which ones.

Gupta's calls for urgency conflicted with testimony given at another legislative meeting earlier Wednesday, by Dr. Letitia Tierney, commissioner of the state Bureau of Public Health. Tierney said that the state was working to develop a medical monitoring program, but stressed patience.

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.

 


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