CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Lawmakers on Thursday grilled the Tomblin administration about more than 20 categories of chemical storage tanks that would be exempted from key safety provisions of legislation proposed in response to the Jan. 9 leak that contaminated drinking water for 300,000 West Virginians.
Department of Environmental Protection officials struggled at times to explain the reasons for some of the exemptions, even though the exemptions generally mirror those contained in Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's bill.
DEP officials also conceded that, while other state programs cover some of the tank facilities targeted for exemption, those other programs don't necessarily mandate the same inspections the new bill would require for the above-ground chemical tanks it would cover.
Kristin Boggs, the DEP's general counsel, said she and a large contingent of other agency officials didn't attend the afternoon House Judiciary Committee meeting to advocate for the exemptions.
"I can't defend or justify," Boggs said. "We're happy to explain what these exemptions mean. We aren't here to defend the exemptions."
Judiciary Committee members were reviewing a Senate-passed version of the chemical tank bill that was modified Wednesday by the House Health Committee. Before it reaches the floor, the bill also has to make it through the House Finance Committee.
Judiciary Chairman Tim Manchin, D-Marion, scheduled a herd of various DEP officials to appear before lawmakers to explain the purpose of language exempting a wide variety of storage tanks from DEP permitting and inspection requirements.
The Senate-passed version is similar to Tomblin's bill, which also contained a long list of exemptions. The governor's list was very similar to exemptions proposed by lawyers and lobbyists following an industry-only meeting the Governor's Office hosted before the legislation was introduced.
Among the exemptions are several that would protect chemical storage tanks at coal mines and natural gas production sites from permitting and inspections required by the new bill.
Lewis Halstead, a deputy director of the DEP Division of Mining and Reclamation, reminded lawmakers that his agency is mandated under state strip-mining laws to periodically inspect all coal operations. However, those inspections, Halstead said, do not include testing the structural integrity of chemical storage tanks -- including those at preparation plants that might contain coal-cleaning chemicals such as Crude MCHM.
James Martin, director of the DEP's Office of Oil and Gas, said his agency likewise doesn't do tank integrity testing -- and isn't required to conduct periodical natural gas site inspections.
"There are times when those sites are inspected," Martin said. "There is not a routine or mandatory inspection frequency. We don't have that in our rule or statute."
Martin was unable to explain another oil and gas exemption that would cover "liquid traps or associated gathering lines related to oil or gas production and gathering operations."