view of water tanks behind dead plants

One year later, is West Virginia’s water safer?


Originally published in West Virginia Focus magazine

It’s been a year now since the January 9, 2014, chemical spill that left 300,000 West Virginians without potable water for days. In the immediate aftermath of the spill, which happened on the second day of the 2014 legislative session, there was a rush to action. With an engaged citizenry breathing down their necks, lawmakers spent the next two months hammering out legislation that could prevent another emergency like this one and make West Virginia’s water safer all around. The result, Senate Bill 373, was introduced January 16 and approved by both houses on March 8, after being amended more than 60 times. In its final form, the “spill bill” edits or creates 50 sections of state code.

The legislation went into effect June 20, 2013, and then moved into a phase just as uncertain as the legislative process: implementation. Many of the reforms introduced by SB 373 had loose ends—some reforms will take years to implement, and some are so complicated that there’s bound to be tweaking. To study and monitor the implementation and effectiveness of SB 373 the Legislature established a special group called the Public Water System Supply Study Commission. That commission submitted its first annual report on December 15, but much of what members were asked to assess is still being sussed out. On three of the five points they were asked to weigh in on, the answer was something along the lines of, “We’ll have to wait and see.”

There are two provisions in the bill that are especially ripe for changes. The first is a new rule that says most public water systems have to create or update their source water protection plans. Those plans aren’t due until June 2016, but there’s already been some talk of that deadline as being unrealistic. There have also been complaints from people at some small utility companies who say they don’t have the expertise to craft these plans in-house or the money to hire outside help. To that end, the commission recommended that legislators appropriate $12.2 million over three years for the development of these plans—which could be a hard sell for some lawmakers. “I’m very concerned that with the tight budget we’re facing, and with the possible expense of this, that some people will balk and we’ll not fully fund what we need to do,” says Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia.

Then there’s the rule requiring that all aboveground storage tanks be registered and inspected by the state—it’s estimated that there are 50,000 tanks in West Virginia, and the idea is that regulators should know more about them than they knew about the tanks at Freedom Industries last January. It’s pretty obvious now that lawmakers will be revisiting the guidelines saying which tanks must be inspected and which are exempt. “There’s probably going to be a big debate about exemption,” says Evan Hansen, an environmental consultant with the Morgantown firm Downstream Strategies. “Should we exempt all tanks from the coal industry? That’s what they’re asking for. Should we exempt all tanks used by the natural gas industry? That’s what they’re asking for.” Senator John Unger, the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 373, says that while we shouldn’t leave whole swaths of industry exempt from regulation, we will have to make some new exemptions this year. “If there’s an attempt to weaken Senate Bill 373, it’s going to be detrimental,” he says. “But we know more today than we did back then, and changing provisions to meet the needs of our present environment—that’s something we should do.”

With the change in the balance of power within West Virginia’s Legislature—Republicans now have the majority in both houses—Fleischauer is worried some lawmakers’ distaste for government regulation will result in a weakening of the bill. “I think there’s a lot of confidence after the election, and people may say that’s a mandate to do things differently,” she says. Plus, last year’s bill was passed under intense public scrutiny—this year it’s different. Everyone is drinking their tap water now, after all, and thinking less about what’s going on in Charleston. “I think the concern is that the people won’t be as engaged this time as they were before,” Unger says. “I’m concerned that some special interests could weaken the legislation for their own economic benefit, to the detriment of public health.”

Unger is optimistic the “spill bill” won’t be gutted by lawmakers this year though. After all, it was unanimously approved in 2014. “The people in the leadership roles here voted for it,” he says plainly. “West Virginia will not be judged on what happened to us in January with the chemical spill, because that could have happened anywhere. What we’re going to be judged on is how we reacted to it and what we put in place to try to prevent it from ever happening again.”

Written by Shay Maunz