A monthly publication such as The Highlands Voice is a lousy place to get legislative news. This early in the session things change day to day. Later on, they will be changing minute to minute. With that understanding, here are some things that are going on (or not going on) in the West Virginia Legislature:
Oil and gas tanks
When we had the Freedom Industries spill near Charleston several years ago, the Legislature sprung into action (more or less) and passed laws regulating storage tanks. Now that the enthusiasm of the crisis has worn off, the Legislature wants to undo some of the regulations.
More specifically, HB 2598 would exempt tanks located closest to public drinking water intakes from the Aboveground Storage Tank Act. Approximately 1,016 oil and gas waste tanks across 27 counties would become unregulated.
Just on its face this sounds bad: tanks holding dangerous stuff; somebody should be checking up on them.
If you want more information about this issue before deciding (or deciding to contact your legislator), the West Virginia Rivers Coalition has most excellent information. Go to https://wvrivers.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/HB2598.pdf.
Power Purchase Agreements
SB30 would allow companies to install solar power on homes, schools, factories, etc. and sell the power to the homeowner, etc. without having to be regulated as a public utility under the direction of the Public Service Commission. There was a big story about it in the February issue of The Highlands Voice. https://www.wvhighlands.org/highlands-voice-mag/. So far it has been introduced and referred to the Senate Committee on Economic Development but nothing else has happened.
Water Quality Standards
Like all states, West Virginia law requires, in general terms, that waters be kept clean. We then fill in the details with what are called water quality standards. After considering such factors as impacts on human health and the uses being made of the water, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection sets standards. These standards then must be approved by the West Virginia Legislature. This is where we are now.
The original water quality standards were established decades ago. They are required to be periodically renewed or amended to account for new research or other developments. Each time they are up for renewal, there is a tussle involving users of water, entities which potentially pollute the water, and others. This piles political issues on top of all the technical issues involving different pollutants, what concentrations are safe, etc. It ends up being almost more than an ordinary human can comprehend.
Fortunately, the West Virginia Rivers Coalition has some extraordinary humans who do understand this and can explain it. Here is what they say:
How much toxic pollutants are allowed in our rivers and streams before the water becomes harmful to public health? This legislative session, lawmakers are tasked with making that important decision as the state updates the human health criteria included our water quality standards. The human health criteria establish a safe level for pollutants, where the concentrations of chemicals in our water will not harm the public’s health. These criteria regulate some of the most toxic chemicals known to man, including DDT, chloroform, and cyanide.
In 2015, EPA updated the values of the human health criteria for 94 pollutants based on the amount of water we drink, number of fish we eat, and the average body weight. They also relied on other factors, such as cancer risk. Their rec-calculation used the best available science at the time and resulted in some of the values for pollutants decreasing and others increasing.
In preparation for the 2019 Legislative Session, the WV Department of Environmental Protection proposed updates to 56 of the 94 pollutants using a state fish consumption rate that was half of the national average. Since the state decided we ate less fish, we could be exposed to higher levels of chemicals. During the Legislative Session, there was heated debate on the criteria updates. Ultimately, the lawmakers decided to delay updates for further study. That has led us to the 2021 Legislative Session.
Over the past 2 years, WV Rivers Coalition has studied this issue in depth. In the fall of 2019, WVDEP invited proposals on how the state should proceed. WV Rivers submitted a proposal that made 3 recommendations: 1) don’t weaken any existing standards, 2) use a fish consumption rate that is consistent with neighboring states, and 3) adopt all the criteria that would strengthen our standards including pollutants that are not currently regulated.
Last summer, the WVDEP submitted their water quality standards recommendations that the 2021 Legislature is now considering. The WVDEP took one step in the right direction, but the majority of their proposed changes don’t go far enough to protect public health. Fortunately, WVDEP is now using the national average fish consumption rate that is more protective of public health and in line with our neighboring states.
However, of the 94 chemicals EPA has recommended updating limits for, WVDEP has selected only 24 to update. Unfortunately, not all of the standards would be stronger, 13 of the 24 would be weakened. And some of them would be weakened quite drastically, allowing more toxins in our water.
Public health experts agree that any additional exposure to these toxic chemicals would be more harmful to public health. In a state with the 3rd highest cancer death rate in the nation, do we really want to take that risk?
These are only some of the proposals that are before the Legislature. Things change too quickly and the forces that move the Legislature are too varied to include anything helpful on present status, prospects, etc. To keep up, you can go to the Legislature’s website to track proposed laws that interest you. It is http://wvlegislature.gov/. In addition, you can subscribe to legislative updates through the West Virginia Environmental Council at https://wvecouncil.org/, through the West Virginia Citizens Action Group https://wvcag.org/, and from the West Virginia Rivers Coalition www.wvrivers.org.