Hearing on Water Quality Rules Turns into Nothing

A September 23 hearing of the Legislative Rulemaking Review Committee on proposed water quality standards proved anticlimactic as the rules were taken off the agenda.

            The rule at issue has to do with what are called water quality standards and the discharge limits that those standards dictate. In 1972, the federal Clean Water Act set as its goal of zero discharge of pollutants into the nation’s waters.  Because that goal was not immediately achievable, the Act also created a system in which discharges were allowed to contain limited concentrations of pollutants. 

How much was allowed to be discharged depended upon what are called water quality standards, something that could be described as how clean we want the water to be.  We would set limits on the discharges low enough that the water quality standard in a stream would not be violated.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, states would, with guidance from the United States Environmental Protection Agency, regularly update their standards so as to keep up developing research on human health and what water quality standards need to be to protect that.

The current dispute over the rule has been going on since 2018.  In 2015 the United States Environmental Protection Agency had suggested updates to human health standards.  After more than a year of public comment and deliberation, in 2018 the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection proposed updating human health standards.  About two thirds of the updates mandated that there be less of certain chemicals in West Virginia waters.  About one third of the updates loosed pollution standards.

At a 2018 meeting a Senate committee agreed to a request by the West Virginia Manufacturers Associating to remove sixty of the updates.  The Association said it needed more time to evaluate the rule.   In 2019 the Legislature could not resolve the question, instead ordering the Department of Environmental Protection to come up with new rules by 2021.

The September 23 meeting was supposed to help move the Legislature toward adopting new rules.  The Committee could have adopted new rules to present to the Legislature when it meets in early 2021.  Instead, the issue remains unresolved and West Virginia’s water quality standards remain outdated.