CHARLES TOWN – A bill authored by Senate Majority Leader John Unger that aims to better regulate above-ground storage tanks like the one that leaked crude MHCM into the Elk Jan. 9 is headed for the House of Delegates after clearing the Senate Tuesday in a unanimous vote.
[cleeng_content id="750115697" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]Unger, who said the owners of the storage tanks, Freedom Industries, demonstrated a “blatant disregard for the health and safety of of those around them,” is confident his bill will soon become law.
“It passed out of Natural Resources and the Senate Judiciary with unanimous support, so I am pretty confident that it is going to pass the Senate, and I am equally confident that it will pass the House and be signed by the governor,” Unger said.
Bill Cole, a Republican senator from Mercer County, has been the most-cited critic of the bill, saying that he felt it was rushed too quickly through both the Natural Resources and Judiciary Committees. Nonetheless, he said Monday night that he planned to vote for the bill.
“There’s no way I’m going to get in the way of it,” he said, though he added that “I do believe a bit more time to review the bill would have been appropriate.
Unger rejects criticism that the bill was a “knee-jerk” reaction to the spill or that it will harm businesses.
“To me, those who are making those statements are trying to possibly hide those who are not being inspected whose facilities could be polluting people’s groundwater or their water supply in general,” Unger said. “We don’t need that type of business in West Virginia, and if this piece of legislation hurts that kind of business, then I think we have accomplished our job. Those are the kinds of businesses we ought to be hurting.”
“They don’t value the welfare of our citizens,” he said. “These are the kinds of businesses that we don’t want.”
Unger said what his legislation will do is ensure that the state is attractive to more responsible businesses.
“We will be restoring confidence in our businesses and businesses who are thinking of coming to West Virginia that their water supplies won’t be tainted,” he said.
The bill, co-sponsored by Senate President Jeff Kessler and 14 other Democrats, requires above-ground chemical storage tanks to be registered and regularly inspected by the Department of Environmental Protection.
The above-ground tanks that leaked crude MHCM into the Elk River on Jan. 9 about a mile upriver from the intake pipe that supplies drinking water to more than 300,000 West Virginians had not been inspected in two decades. “We don’t know where these facilities are or what is in these facilities,” Unger said.
The bill also requires water resource protection plans to be in place for all above-ground tanks. “If something like this were to ever happen again, it could be mitigated quickly. Response teams could be mobilized to prevent it from leaking into people’s drinking water,” Unger said.
The bill also requires drilling operators who use water wells to serve hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, operations — which often use very large quantities of water — to report to the DEP how much water they draw out of the ground each month. It also calls for state agencies to continue providing matching funds to the USDA’s stream gauging program, which helps monitor water flows throughout the state.
Cole said he hopes that state industries will be given more time to weigh in on the bill while it is in the House.
“I did say that I felt the bill was being – I may have said ‘rammed through’ – with disregard for the unintended consequences,” he said. “The oil and gas industry, which is critically important to West Virginia’s future – I’d like them to say how this affects them or doesn’t affect them.”
Unger said it is important for the Legislature to act now because, as bad as the Elk River spill was, the state dodged a bullet. “With the situation that happened here in the Kanawha Valley, the chemical had a strong odor to it. If it didn’t it could have gone undetected. It could have also been more lethal. It was a wake-up call,” he said.
The bill will now be sent to the House of Delegates, where it will first face review by committees before moving to the floor of the house.
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