New Bill Would Gut Regulations On West Virginia’s Storage Tanks

CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber

The Freedom Industries site in West Virginia, which released 10,000 gallons of chemicals into a drinking water supply, is seen in this Jan. 13, 2014, photo.

West Virginia lawmakers introduced a bill Tuesday that would scale back regulations enacted last year on aboveground storage tanks, like the one that spilled last January and contaminated the water of 300,000 of the state’s residents.

House Bill 2754 makes changes to the Aboveground Storage Tank Act, which was signed into law by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin last April and requires storage tank owners to register their tanks so that the state could create an inventory, and also stipulated that these tanks to be inspected by the first of this year.

Under the new bill, the number of tanks regulated by the act would shrink considerably, said Evan Hansen, president of West Virginia think tank Downstream Strategies. The bill exempts storage tanks that store oil or any other liquid associated with the oil or natural gas industry, and it also exempts tanks that hold less than 10,000 gallons.

The Aboveground Storage Tank Act, as it’s written now, applies to the nearly 50,000 registered above-ground storage tanks in West Virginia. With the exemptions outlined in this new bill, fewer than 1,000 would be subject to the act, Hansen said. The drop is severe partly because, according to Downstream Strategies, the oil and gas industry is associated with about three-quarters of the state’s above-ground storage tanks, so exempting the industry from the act greatly reduces the number of tanks that will be subject to the act.

That means that the bill, if it’s passed, could be considered a win for West Virginia’s oil and gas industry, which has been critical of the Storage Tank Act in the past. In August, James McKinney, president of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia, said the act could “cause lost jobs” and “close businesses for us.” And last month, West Virginia Oil and Gas Association Executive Director Corky DeMarco also said he thought the bill went too far.

“I think the concern today has to do with what happened with Freedom Industries,” DeMarco said. “I’d like to go on the record as saying I don’t believe the oil and gas industries, where we have our tanks, what’s in our tanks and the way they are situated and protected, there’s much of a problem with them contaminating the water supply.”

Hansen said the bill’s exemption of tanks that hold less than 10,000 gallons is scary, because the state’s history has shown that spills less than 10,000 gallons can create major disruptions in people’s day-to-day lives. The storage tank that leaked crude MCHM into the state’s Elk River last January held more than 10,000 gallons, but only about 10,000 actually spilled. That spill forced hundreds of thousands of West Virginians to rely on bottled water for drinking, bathing, and cooking for days. And this January, an overturned tanker spilled almost 4,000 gallons of diesel fuel into a local waterway, shutting down water supplies for local residents.

It will take a few weeks, at least, for the fate of the bill to be determined, but Hansen said he expects West Virginians, many of whom were outraged after the chemical spill last year, to push back against the bill.

“There was a huge public outcry last year, and that’s why the [storage tanks] bill was so strong,” he said. “I think if people find out what’s in this bill, and they have the time to take part in the process before it’s voted on, I would expect people to be just as interested in protecting what they did last year. The issue hasn’t gone away.”

This week, West Virginia’s Gov. Tomblin also signed a bill that repealed the state’s Alternative Renewable Energy Portfolio Act — the first bill signed into law in this year’s legislative session in the state. The act required large utilities in the state to get 25 percent of their electricity from alternative sources by 2025, but it included things like tires, natural gas, and some types of coal-burning technology in its definition of “alternative,” so the repeal isn’t a major loss for renewable energy in the state.