The language of Senate Bill 373 has become as fluid as the substance it is written to protect.
The bill to regulate above-ground storage tanks began at the pen of Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley; Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin offered his recommendations, as well. A committee substitute melded the two versions and passed the Senate Natural Resources Committee Wednesday. Thursday, after a three-hour Judiciary Committee meeting, SB 373 has a committee substitute for the committee substitute.
The bill passed unanimously, but not without some contentious debate.
Sen. Evan Jenkins, R-Cabell, asked that the bill be delayed. His motion was defeated along party lines, as was Republican Sen. Chris Walters’ motion to exempt coal mine bathhouses.
Sen. Bill Cole, R-Mercer, said he thinks the bill was “jammed through” both committees.
“We need better regulation of above-ground storage tanks,” Cole said. “We owe it to the people of West Virginia that they have a clean water supply. It’s easy to vote for strict regulations on above-ground storage tanks.”
But Cole said he feared the bill is not in the best interest of West Virginia businesses.
Chances are good the bill will be changed in the future, said Sen. Sam Cann, D-Harrison. But he said he was glad the Senate has taken the lead in saying “we care about our water.”
No written version of the Judiciary Committee’s adaptation of the bill was available after the meeting.
West Virginia Division of Natural Resources Director Randy Huffman said the bill gives his agency regulatory oversight it lacked when dealing with above-ground storage tanks, although the agency does have the authority to inspect any property in the state.
“Is this bill strong enough? The answer is yes,” Huffman said. “Could it be debated? We all know the answer.”
The director said if SB 373 had been in place a year ago, the DEP might have been able to prevent the chemical leak at Freedom Industries on the Elk River that shut down tap water usage for 300,000 people, some of them for a week. Huffman said the DEP could now only visually inspect above-ground tanks, but this bill gives his agency “a better system,” including pressure tests that would reveal leaks.
Huffman said Tomblin wants the bill to be a priority.
“He wants to make sure we get this right,” said Jason Pizatella, Tomblin’s deputy chief of staff. “We think this is a good product.”
It also requires public water systems to have an emergency plan and a second source or intake for potable water. That requirement could put some rural public service districts under financial strain.
Rural Water Assistance Fund executive director Amy Swann told the committee that the requirement for each public service district or small municipal water system to have a plan in 90 days would be a burden. The committee amended the bill so that those systems would have 180 days to develop a plan. Updating existing plans, some a decade old, would be the same as developing a new plan, Swann said.
The bill adopts the state’s Water Resources Plan, which is both an inventory and a strategy for future demands, floods and droughts. The plan was developed by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. Walters said he feared the committee adopting such a plan would lessen the chances of passing a bill meant to protect potable water for the state’s residents.
The committee’s counsel, Jay Lazell said the 900-page document is about the protection of water, “both quality and quantity.”
Unger said he was glad the bill passed the committee unanimously, but called the criticisms “obstructionist.”
“They want to stop this at all costs,” he said. “Their whole purpose was for us not to move, because that way you don’t put them on the record.”
Unger said the 300,000 people whose water was “poisoned” should be asked how they feel about the bill. “What do you think they’ll say?” he asked.
The bill went to the Senate floor for first reading Friday.