West Virginia House Passes Chemical Storage Bill In Effort To Prevent Future Spills

CREDIT: AP Photo/John Raby

Demonstrators hold signs Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014, at the state Capitol in Charleston, W.Va. after a Jan. 9 chemical spill into the Elk River tainted the water supply.

Nearly two months after Freedom Industries’ leaky chemical storage tank on the Elk River in West Virginia contaminated the drinking water supply for 300,000 people, the State House of Representatives passed a new bill late Wednesday night regulating chemical storage tanks.

Under the bill, which passed 95 to 0, the Department of Environmental Protection must conduct an inventory of all above-ground storage tanks in the state, about 1,600 of which are located close to drinking-water supplies — newly designated “zones of critical concern.” In addition, the bill requires annual inspections of all above-ground storage tanks in West Virginia. Those near water supplies must be inspected by the DEP, while others could be inspected by an industry hired professional.

The registry and inspections will be paid for by tank owners.

Every water utility in the state — about 150 of them — will also be required to submit a plan to the Department of Health and Human Resources, showing how they would respond to a water contamination incident, including an assessment of the feasibility of adding a second water intake point.

West Virginia American Water will be required to install an early warning monitoring system that could alert plant operators to the presence of contaminants in the river, in case the next chemical spill doesn’t have a distinctive odor.

One of the most controversial amendments to the bill which has repeatedly been added and removed, but which passed with the bill on Wednesday, requires the Bureau for Public Health to conduct a long-term study of health effects resulting from the chemical leak. After the widespread, and confusing, hospitalizations and sicknesses that happened after the spill, health advocates see this as a particularly big deal.

One potential major failing of the bill is that it only regulates tanks larger than 1,320 gallons.

Also not included in the bill was a provision that would allow people to sue their water company, nearby chemical tank-owners, the Bureau for Public Health or the DEP to enforce the provisions of the bill.

The differences between the bills passed by the House and Senate will now need to be worked out and both bodies must re-approve the bill by Saturday night — the end of the current legislative session.