CHARLESTON - After weeks of debate and rewrites, West Virginia House delegates passed new safeguards Wednesday for storage tanks and public water supplies in the wake of a Jan. 9 chemical spill.
The spill in Charleston contaminated water for about 300,000 people for four to 10 days, shaking the public's confidence in their water and those tasked with protecting it. The spill also left thousands of people wondering about the long-term effects of consuming, bathing and cooking with their tap water.
In a 95-0 vote, House lawmakers passed new requirements for medical monitoring, early detection technology at water plants, protection plans against pollutants in drinking water supplies and new oversight for aboveground storage tanks.
"What we were looking at was trying to restore public confidence, not only in government and government agencies, but also in a private water company," said Del. Nancy Peoples Guthrie, D-Kanawha.
With three days left in the legislative session, the bill's passage likely sets up a joint House-Senate panel to work out differences between the two chambers.
Lawmakers and state environmental officials say the House bill reforms a regulatory gray area for storing chemicals. The proposal adds registrations and yearly inspections at many above-ground storage tanks holding more than 1,320 gallons. Some containers that face comparable regulation would be exempt, like many railcars and tanker trucks.
Storage facilities close to public water intakes would face tougher permitting requirements, which would be subject to public comment.
The Department of Environmental Protection would have to take an inventory of all above-ground storage tanks, which the agency says could top 1,600 in areas close to drinking-water supplies.
About 150 public water systems would need to craft plans to protect their water supplies. West Virginia American Water, the company whose supply was tainted, would need to implement early detection monitoring systems or explain to lawmakers why it couldn't produce the technology. The company has said it would cost millions of dollars, while some lawmakers say it would be in the $150,000 range.
Legislators agreed to direct state health officials to monitor the health of citizens exposed to the water. The state would look to all sources of government money to set up the long-term study, since so little is known about how exposure to the chemical in water affects people's health.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has said the state is waiting for guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how to conduct the long-term study.
"We do not know what future side effects may happen," said Del. Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha.
Lawmakers also made exemptions for several industries on fees for the new permit system, including oil, natural gas and gasoline suppliers, which drew some skepticism.
"This is the slope we're heading down," said Del. Tim Manchin, D-Marion. "How many exemptions are we going to have from these fees?"
The House considered close to 100 amendments in Wednesday's floor action and committee meetings that lasted up to nine hours.