By Luanne McGovern
A monthly publication such as The Highlands Voice does not come out nearly often enough to keep up with what is going on at the West Virginia Legislature. Things change so quickly that to keep up it would require a publication that comes out weekly early in the session, daily toward the middle, hourly during the last week, and about every twenty minutes on the last day. Committee assignments, status, etc. may be accurate for now but could have changed by tomorrow or even later today.
Some of the top legislative priorities for the WV Highlands Conservancy are: Off Road Vehicle use in public lands, Water Quality and Climate change.
Off Road Vehicles (ORVs) in Public Lands
The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy has long opposed ORVs on public lands, as their use is incompatible with all the other uses of public lands. The Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance Conservation has gathered a plethora of materials on the effects of Off Road Vehicles on public lands. For a wealth of information on the adverse effects of ORVs, go to the Conservation Hub https://conservation-abra.hub.arcgis.com/pages/wv-publiclands-orv.
SB 560 creates a new class of e-bikes called “Class 2 E-bike”, e-bikes that do NOT require the rider to peddle for the engine to engage. Instead, these bikes are self-propelled motorized e-bikes. Current law allows peddle assist e-bikes on public bike and multiuse trails. If SB 560 is adopted, self-propelled e-bikes would also be permitted on these trails. SB 560 passed the Senate and now has been sent to House Judiciary. There are real concerns about the impacts of a fully motorized off-road vehicle for noise, water quality and habitat protection, maintenance of our trails, and even personal insurance requirements.
Multiple bills have been introduced to help expand the use of ORVs on public lands by Senator Mark Maynard, but so far none of these bills have been discussed in committee. These bills include SB 563, SB 564, SB 565, SB 566, and SB 579. We’ll let you know if any of these progress further.
Somewhat related are two bills (SB 485 and HB 4408) that are moving through the legislature. They would expand and extend the lease terms for private companies to develop and operate facilities and recreational activities for all of our state parks and forests. The bills give the Director of the WV Division of Natural Resources the sole authority to decide what kind of recreational activities and facilities can be developed by private companies on our state public lands, and can set those lease terms for a 50 year period. There appear to be no guardrails limiting the types of new facilities and activities allowed. Casinos, racetracks, amusement parks, ORV trails or similar developments could be built on our state’s public lands.
Multiple bills have been introduced to chip away at water quality standards. A few are making progress through the legislature.
SB 279 (Authorizing DEP to promulgate legislative rules) was signed into law on February 11, 2022. The law strengthens some water quality standards, but weakens criteria for several suspected carcinogens and toxic chemicals. Legislative oversight of site-specific human health criteria changes will be ceded to the Governor.
HB 2598 (Modifying the inspection requirements and the definition of an above ground storage tank) passed the House and is now in the Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee. This bill would lessen the inspection requirements for aboveground tanks in “areas of critical concern”, i.e. upstream of drinking water intakes.
On the positive side, SB 480 (Relating to DEP Office of Oil and Gas) would increase funding for oil and gas inspectors. Currently, the Department of Environmental Protection Office of Oil and Gas (OOG) only has nine inspectors overseeing approximately 75,000 wells and 28,000 tanks across the state. That’s one inspector for every 8,000 wells. SB 480 would impose an annual fee of one hundred dollars per well. Low producing wells would be exempt. This fee would produce enough revenue that we could have one inspector for approximately every 4,000 wells. This bill has passed the Senate and is in the House Finance committee.
There are multiple bills that have been introduced to the Legislature on climate related issues, especially alternative energy sources. Nuclear, geothermal, rare earth elements, and carbon sequestration are all being discussed. Depending on where you stand on the various issues, this can be good news or bad news.
SB 4 (Repealing ban on construction of nuclear power plants) was signed into law on February 1, 2022. It repeals the previous law that outlawed nuclear power plants to be built in WV. Related HB 2882 is also being considered.
SB 622 and HB 4491 both deal with regulations around carbon dioxide sequestration, and are likely to pass.
Several bills related to the recovery of Rare Earth Elements and Critical Minerals from Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) are making their way through. The tax credits would provide incentives for AMD system operators to invest in facilities to recover these materials for future use. Research at WVU is showing promising results for the future of recovery of Rare Earth Elements from AMD.
Keeping up with the WV Legislature can be a daunting undertaking. In 2022, the Senate has already introduced over 700 bills and the House has introduced over 1400 bills! The WV Highlands Conservancy has forged great partnerships with the WV Environmental Council, WV Rivers, West Virginians for Public Lands and many other fantastic organizations – all with the goal of keeping West Virginia wild and wonderful – now and for future generations.