By Frank Young, WV E-Council Legislative Committee Chair
The West Virginia state legislature adjourned in mid-March, just as the COVID-19 anxiety was cranking up–thus exchanging one social plague for another. We herein report on the outcome of certain bills.
It was down to the wire, but we did it! At 11:30 PM on Saturday night (the last day of the 2020 legislature), the WV Legislature listened to our messages and passed Senate Concurrent Resolution 46, which initiates a statewide study to identify toxic PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl) chemicals in our drinking water. PFAS include the chemical C8 introduced into the Wood County area’s drinking water by Dupont’s manufacture of its Teflon products.
As time was running out, the Speaker of the House acknowledged that several delegates were asking about the study resolution (thanks to many citizens’ calls to their legislators) and he paused other actions to bring it up for a vote. This was a hard won victory and every citizen lobbyist deserves the credit.
Throughout the course of the legislative session citizen advocates sent 19,000 messages to members of the Legislature demanding they take steps to keep West Virginians safe from dangerous PFAS toxins. PFAS, which are man-made chemicals, are sometimes called toxic “forever chemicals” because they do not break down and they accumulate in the environment. The primary exposure pathway is through drinking water. They are a very real and very serious threat to our health. Right now, the City of Martinsburg’s Big Springs Water Plant water well is closed due to PFAS contamination and an exposure assessment by federal agencies is underway.
So what’s next for the PFAS study? The plan outlined in SCR 46 requires the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the West Virginia Department of Health & Human Resources to work together to sample raw or untreated water near public drinking water intakes across the state for the presence of PFAS. Starting in 2021, the agencies must report the study findings to the legislature on a semi-annual basis. The data collected during the study will help public health and environmental protection agencies determine the next steps to protect us from PFAS.
Senate Bill 583 would further the development of renewable energy resources by allowing the state’s utility companies to “plan, design, construct, purchase, own and operate” and recover certain costs of developing renewable generation and energy storage facilities through a program overseen by the Public Service Commission of West Virginia.
Other “good” bills that passed and were signed by governor:
SB35 – Limiting civil penalty for littering conviction to $2000. This bill passed, which we considered “good’ because local law enforcement feedback was that law was not being enforced because of high penalties. Note: this did not affect fines for littering, just the civil penalties.
SB120- Establishing priorities for expenditures for plugging abandoned gas or oil wells.
SB589- Creating Critical Needs / Failing Systems Sub Account- provides loans or grants to certain failing public water systems
HB4088-Disposition of funds from certain oil and natural gas wells due to unknown or un-locatable interest owners;
SB690- Permitting certain special purpose vehicles on highways. This bill was terrible when first announced, then changed entirely to NOT allow off road vehicles on public lands;
HB 4217 – Authorizing the DEP to promulgate legislative rules. This is the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection rules bundle. It includes provisions for hazardous waste, remediation, air quality, and compensation for landowners impacted by mining-caused subsidence. Once the governor signs the bill it will head to the EPA and Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation for approval.
Good bills that did not pass: did not Pass:
SB611- Power Purchase Agreements bill would have allowed third-party ownership of renewable and alternative energy (including rooftop solar) generating facilities
HB 4787 – Updated Penalties for Water Quality Violations. This bill would have taken steps to deter polluters from breaking the law by allowing the WVDEP to increase penalties for repeated water quality violations on larger linear projects (like pipelines).
HB 3049 – Improving Dissemination of Boiled Water Advisories. When drinking water is unsafe the public needs to know quickly. This bill requires water utilities to make customers aware of boiled water advisories through a text and voice alert system. Unfortunately, even though it passed both houses unanimously, the bill appeared to fall through the cracks and failed to get completed in the final days of the session.
HB 4574 – Creation of Just Transition Office. The legislation would have created the Just Transition Office to help communities affected by the decline of coal rebuild their economies and diversify their economic base. It passed the House unanimously, but the Senate failed to act on it.
SB 840 – Creating statutory fee for modifying permits issued by DEP Office of Oil and Gas. This bill would have enacted a fee for modifications to oil and gas permits. This bill was critical to solving the very serious budgetary deficits affecting the WVDEP Office of Oil & Gas. It passed the Senate, but died in the House Judiciary Committee Read more here.
HJR25 – Environmental Rights Amendment. This resolution would have secured West Virginian’s rights to clean water, pure air, and a healthy environment.
HB 4079 – Altering the definition of an aboveground storage tank. This bill would have exempted certain tanks used by the oil and gas industry closest to public drinking water intakes from the Aboveground Storage Tank Act.
HB 4816 – Protecting the State’s Waters from Coal Company Bankruptcies. This bill would have eliminated self-bonding by coal companies.
Bad Bills that passed:
SB793-Reduced B&O taxes imposed on certain coal-fired electric generating units;
SB810– Implementing federal Affordable Clean Energy rule;
HB4221-Natural Gas Liquids Economic Development Act; more tax breaks for natural gas liquid collectors and transporters.
HB4439-Clarifying the method for calculating the amount of severance tax attributable to the increase in coal production
HB4615– Anti-Protest Bill. The “West Virginia Critical Infrastructure Protection Act” raises criminal and civil penalties for trespassing, actual damage and tampering, and conspiracy to peacefully protest near “critical infrastructure” like natural gas pipelines. While the final bill that passed is less extreme than the introduced version, this is still a serious encroachment on acts of civil disobedience.
Bad at first, but then only half bad bill that got passed:
HB4645-Southern West Virginia Lake Development Study Commission Act; WVEC got this bill amended to put two scientists on the study commission – a hydrologist and ecologist.