By Pamela Pritt
A proposed constitutional amendment would give West Virginians added assurance that they own the state’s waterways. The measure has been introduced by Sen. Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, who says statutory ownership is not enough.
Unger said he wants the amendment to be on the ballot in the November general election so that people can have the opportunity to vote on the issue.
“It claims the water for the use and benefit of the people of West Virginia,” Unger said.
Unger has been a man on a mission ever since the chemical spill in the Elk River disrupted water usage for more about 300,000 people in the region last month.
He’s studied a U.S. Supreme Court case, Virginia vs. Maryland, in which Maryland owns the Potomac River, but because of growth in northern Virginia, cities there were using the water. Maryland took the case to the country’s highest court, but lost the case because a 1785 compact gave Virginia the right to use the river’s riparian zone. The case was decided in 2003.
The Senate majority leader said in order for West Virginia citizens to be certain the water belongs to the state, it would first need to be claimed, which the amendment would do.
Then, the waterways would have to be inventoried, which has been done by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. Finally, the state must manage the water, which is what Senate Bill 373 proposed to do.
SB 373, commonly called the “spill bill,” regulates above-ground storage tanks which contain liquids other than water. The bill also places the DEP’s water study into statute.
The amendment gathered steam Wednesday, as 26 senators signed on.
Unger said the resolution got bipartisan support initially, which does not guarantee its passage.
His other water-related effort last week calls on federal authorities and agencies to address broader aspects of the chemical spill dealing with possible long-term health effects. Unger said this resolution deals with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to continue to supply potable water to the affected region, and for the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health to analyze the chemicals that were released and to determine effects to human health and the environment.
FEMA last week denied the state’s request for emergency protective measures, saying, “the event was not of such severity and magnitude as to warrant grant assistance under this emergency declaration.”
Unger hopes the resolution will help Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s appeal of the decision.
Tomblin said he was “disappointed by FEMA’s response” to the state’s water disaster.
SB 373 unanimously passed the Senate, and the House Committee on Health and Human Resources Wednesday. The House Committee on the Judiciary is currently studying the bill.