After spill, House wades with care into water bill

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It became obvious this past week that the House of Delegates is going to be more deliberate in its consideration of legislation to better cope with the problems created by last month’s Elk River chemical spill than was the case in the state Senate where the legislation moved through quickly.

A total of 16 senators co-sponsored SB373 that was introduced Jan. 16 and passed the Senate unanimously on Jan. 28 after being reviewed by both the Senate Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill arrived in the House of Delegates on Jan. 29 and was referred to the House Health and Human Resources Committee.

A public hearing was conducted by that committee in the House chamber on Monday Feb. 3 and last Wednesday night, Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne, put the legislation on the agenda and it passed but only after some major amendments. However, SB373 was given a triple committee reference by House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison.

So the legislation now must be considered by the House Judiciary Committee and also the House Finance Committee before it can be ready for a vote of the entire membership. And there is almost certainly going to be additional committee amendments before it gets to the House floor.

One of the amendments approved by the House Health and Human Resources Committee would require every water treatment plant in the state — more than 300 — to have either a secondary water intake point or three to five days worth of untreated water in storage.

If this had been a requirement at the time of the Jan. 9 chemical leak, West Virginia American Water might well have been able to shut down its primary water intake and kept the coal-cleaning chemical Crude MCHM from contaminating the water supply for some 300,000 West Virginia customers.

A spokeswoman for the water company said she couldn’t say how much this could cost any of the company’s nine treatment plants in the state. But the bill sponsors countered that it could be considered when it arrives at the House Finance Committee.

The House of Delegates has also added a provision to the bill that would require an annual inspection of above-ground storage tanks, but with several exemptions. It requires every water utility to create a source water protection plan, which would include details of how it would respond to a water contamination.

The director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department said last week it is urgent to begin screening for a medical monitoring program as soon as possible. He said the actual monitoring doesn’t need to begin immediately but they need to identify people to be included in the study.

Meanwhile, using the word “extravagant” to describe the findings in an audit of improper expenses piled up during the 44-year reign of former West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Gus Douglass is an understatement. The audit only covered four years from 2008 to 2012 but managed to turn up more than $11,000 in potential improper expenditures, including nearly $4,000 in reimbursement for a campsite at the West Virginia State Fair.

Douglass, now in his 80s, was elected to his first four-year term in 1964 and first served 24 years from 1964 until 1988 when he made an ill-advised — and losing — bid for the Democratic nomination for governor. He successfully began another reign as commissioner of agriculture in 1992 and won five more terms before stepping down in 2012.

The improper expenditures of $100 a night each year for a campsite at the annual West Virginia State Fair during his last term in office was one of the final padded expenses uncovered by the audit. The total amount of nearly $4,000 in reimbursement was paid even though Douglass was not charged for that campsite.

His employees also apparently were allowed to “pad” their mileage expenditures to the tune of more than $4,000 and received combined reimbursements for $7,000 in airline tickets that could not be traced to expense settlement forms. Those employees also charged the state more than $12,000 for lodging without receipts.

Current Commissioner Walt Helmick said he asked for the audit after he “heard rumors” of unorthodox business practices by Douglass.




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