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Editorial: Some progress on tank bill; a way to go

The House of Delegates unanimously passed a bill to regulate above-ground storage tanks and even made some improvements to it. There is still plenty of work left to do.

Notably, House members restored a provision requiring the Bureau for Public Health to study long-term health effects of the Jan. 9 chemical leak. This is smart. Having been negligent enough to let a poorly understood chemical flow freely into the drinking water, how stupid would leaders have to be to not take the opportunity to monitor and catalog any long-term effects? If the state keeps a careful eye on long-term health effects, anyone who develops a problem will have a better shot at early detection and treatment.

The House version also would require West Virginia American Water to install an early-warning monitoring system or explain to the Legislature why such a warning system is not feasible and suggest alternatives. West Virginia American Water should be rushing to take such action on its own without legislation, but it is not. The public can't count on every contaminant to announce itself by making the whole town smell like licorice.

This version requires a registry and annual inspections of all above-ground storage tanks. Those upstream from water intake points would be inspected by DEP, while others would be inspected by industry-hired professional engineers. Fees on tank owners would fund inspections and the registry. Going into conference to sort out differences with the Senate version of this bill, lawmakers should delete any exemptions that would let some industries with above-ground chemical tanks escape paying their share.

Among other issues that need to be resolved:

  • Lawmakers rejected a provision that would allow people to sue chemical tank-owners, the Bureau for Public Health or the DEP to enforce provisions of this bill. That amounts to protection for polluters and feckless public agencies, not the public, and should be reversed.
  • Gov. Tomblin and the Senate had included a long industry-crafted list of tanks that would be exempt from regulation. The House wisely removed most of them, and Senate President Jeff Kessler should keep them out.
  • But there is still a problem with how tanks are defined. Someone apparently misinterpreted a federal rule used as a model for this bill. As written, the bill would apply only to individual tanks larger than 1,320 gallons. The bill should be corrected to apply to all facilities that can store at least 1,320 gallons in aggregate, which could exist in a number of tanks and which present real hazards to West Virginians.
  • The House bill is still too secretive. West Virginia's Freedom of Information Act already contains plenty of exemptions to keep sensitive information from terrorists. This bill contains at least three more exemptions intended to keep important information from West Virginians. As the Gazette's David Gutman pointed out, they may conflict with the federal Community Right-to-Know Act.
  • West Virginians learned painful lessons about protecting water quality over the last two months. In next 36 hours, members of the House of Delegates and the Senate will show whether they learned those lessons, also.


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