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Citizen groups push for broader water reforms

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Environmental groups gathered at the state Capitol on Monday, hoping to convince lawmakers that last month's Elk River chemical spill is proof that major changes are needed in how West Virginia protects its water.

As part of its annual E-Day, West Virginia Environmental Council organizers urged the Legislature to strengthen a chemical storage tank bill and broaden their approach to other water quality and public health issues.

"This is not just about Freedom Industries," said Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. "It's about what's been happening across our state for decades."

Rosser was among about 100 people from around the state who gathered in the Capitol's lower rotunda for a press conference and rally, as various full-time lobbyists watched from a floor above.

Among other things, environmentalists said they wanted lawmakers to remove industry-proposed exemptions from the chemical storage tank bill, expand the types of facilities covered by the legislation, and mandate creation of a new chemical accident prevention program recommended by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

"The problem is not that one leak from that one tank on the Elk River," said Jim Kotcon, longtime leader of the West Virginia Sierra Club. "The problem is tank after tank and impoundment after impoundment that are leaking all the time."

Don Garvin, the environmental council's lead lobbyist, said he sees some progress with lawmakers.

For example, Garvin said, lawmakers removed a weakened water pollution limit for aluminum -- a measure backed by the coal industry and the Department of Environmental Protection -- from a bundle of DEP rule changes.

"We raised an issue about weakening the state's water quality standards," Garvin said. "No one wanted to be seen as doing that after the chemical spill."

Three lawmakers spoke at the environmental council event.

House Health and Human Resources Committee Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne, lamented that it took a major chemical spill for lawmakers to consider some basic safety rules on above-ground storage tanks.

"The bill that came before us should have come before us twenty years ago," Perdue said.

Perdue said if the bill that eventually passes isn't strong enough, "it will happen again." And, he said, even once that bill is law, there is much more lawmakers need to do.

"There's no way to do all of the things that need to be done in one session," Perdue said. "It could take years."

Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, told the crowd that it's "critically important" for lawmakers to "see that the public feels strongly about this issue."

Fleischauer said she's disappointed that so many state leaders continue to rant about government regulations, even after the April 2010 explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine.

"How can anyone say that after 29 miners died that we need to lighten up on regulations?" Fleischauer said.

Delegate Mike Moneypenny, D-Taylor, said, "How many wake-up calls is it going to take before we get effective legislation to protect our water?"

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


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