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Nearing homestretch, water bill passes Senate

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A bill regulating chemical storage tanks, proposed in response to January's water crisis, is inching closer to becoming law.

The West Virginia Senate unanimously passed the bill Friday. It now goes back to the House of Delegates, which unanimously passed an almost identical version on Wednesday. If the House approves the Senate's version, which it is almost sure to do, the bill would require only Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's signature to become official.

The Senate made just one change to the bill that came over from the House. The Senate removed an amendment, advocated by Delegate Justin Marcum, D-Mingo, that would have removed the fees paid by owners of certain above-ground storage tanks. The bill is funded by such fees.

Marcum's amendment would have exempted from fees any tank that has a strict "individual" permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection, tanks with oil and gas permits and tanks with spill-prevention plans from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

"We restored the funding because I think we have a very significant well-thought-out bill," Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said. "I was concerned that, the way it came over, we may have had a paper tiger -- a great regulatory framework without the ability to employ or engage the necessary personnel through the DEP to do the inspections."

It was unclear how many storage tanks the exemption would have applied to. There are at least 1,600 above-ground storage tanks located immediately upstream of drinking-water intakes.

The bill has now passed through five committees, passed the Senate twice, passed the House once, and has gone through about 100 proposed amendments. The House held a public hearing on the amendment with more than 50 speakers and, three times this week, the House debated the bill past 10 p.m.

The bill has been rewritten four times from the one the governor originally proposed.

"With the public's input and constant attention, I think Senate Bill 373 is an example of how the system works," said Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, the bill's original sponsor. "It is truly a product of the West Virginia Legislature."

Kessler said he thinks the House did "marvelous work."

The bill the House sent to the Senate was much changed from the one the Senate passed five weeks ago.

The House removed a long industry-suggested list of tanks that would be exempt from inspection, although the House wrote a very specific definition of above-ground storage tanks, limiting inspection to tanks with volumes greater than 1,320 gallons.

The current version also orders the Bureau for Public Health to conduct a long-term study of health effects resulting from the chemical leak. The bill tells the Bureau to search for all available funds -- including potential federal grants -- and to report back on its process and prognosis by the first day of 2015.

The House required West Virginia American Water to install an early-warning monitor system, which could identify foreign substances in the Elk River before they reach the treatment plant. The water company has a similar device at its treatment plant in Huntington.

The bill is an attempt to regulate above-ground storage tanks, like the one at Freedom Industries' tank farm that leaked into the Elk River, contaminating the drinking water of 300,000 West Virginians. It requires the DEP to compile a registry of all above-ground tanks. All tanks would be inspected annually. Tanks near drinking-water intakes would be inspected by the DEP, while industry-hired engineers would inspect others.

The bill requires all water utilities to create source-water protection plans. Those plans would include information on nearby hazards, as a well as how the utility would respond to a contamination. The plans would have to include a study of the feasibility of adding a second water intake or several days of raw water storage.

Many people have said that if West Virginia American had a second intake or water storage, the company could have shut off its intake and prevented its system from being contaminated. The company repeatedly has stood by its decision to leave its one intake open, saying shutting it down would not have been feasible.

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


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