WV Senate Passes DEP-backed Bill Weakening Some Water Quality Standards

By Mike Tony

The West Virginia Senate has passed legislative rules on environmental protection that include a weakening of water quality standards for certain carcinogens, sending the rules bundle to Gov. Jim Justice for his signature.

The rules package also strengthens some water quality standards and has been defended by the state environmental regulators who proposed them.

The measure has sailed through the Republican-controlled Legislature, with overwhelming majority support despite drawing the ire of conservationists and concerned citizens who don’t want to see any of the standards be made less stringent.

The Senate passed the rules bundle 22-11 Friday, after the Senate Judiciary Committee’s chairman and vice chairman spoke in support of it, citing the state Department of Environmental Protection’s support of the scientific methodology behind the water quality standard updates.

“We follow the science wherever it leads,” said Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, the Judiciary Committee chairman.

“I like to follow the science, but I’m also a fan of following the science of cleaner water and reducing that acceptable risk as much as possible,” Sen. Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha, said in opposition. “Why in the world would we weaken these water quality standards?”

Department of Environmental Protection Deputy Secretary Scott Mandirola told the committee prior to its vote to advance the legislation Monday that he supports the water quality standard updates, saying they would leave the cancer risk managed by the existing standards at 1 in 1 million.

The DEP’s proposed update of standards on pollutants into rivers and streams would adopt 24 of 94 updates proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Thirteen of those updates would weaken at least one category of existing standards, 11 of which, Mandirola said, would result in weakened standards for permits.

The plan to update the water quality standards, proposed by the DEP, dates back to 2018. The standards are up for DEP review every three years, per the federal Clean Water Act.

The DEP had proposed updating standards for 56 pollutants, some of which hadn’t been updated since the 1980s, based on recommendations the EPA made in 2015. But the committee removed those standard updates in 2018 after pushback from the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, which has argued that the DEP should use different human health criteria.

“The problem with this bill is it doesn’t follow all the science,” Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, said. “Here we are, leaving 32 [updates] on the table. The explanation that we were provided did not hold a lot of water, in my book.”

Department members and industrial and environmental representatives are working on updates to the remaining 32 pollutants they have not come to a consensus on, according to Mandirola.

Human health ambient water quality criteria represent specific levels of chemicals or conditions in a body of water that are not expected to cause adverse effects to human health, per the EPA’s definition.

In 2019, the Legislature adopted a bill requiring the DEP to delay presenting new standards until the 2021 legislative session, after proposing updates by April 1, 2020. The DEP did that on March 31, 2020, releasing the proposal to adopt 24 of the EPA’s proposed updates.

The Legislative Rule-Making Review Committee advanced the rule modification in December. The House of Delegates passed the rules bundle on March 12.

Conservationist groups, such as the West Virginia Rivers Coalition and West Virginia Environmental Council, oppose the weakening of any water quality standards.

Opponents said at a public hearing on the proposal earlier this month that the standards shouldn’t be weakened, since manufacturers already are following them, and that West Virginia’s third-highest cancer death rate in the nation (per the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) makes the state especially vulnerable to any weakening of those standards.

Note:  This article previously appeared in The Charleston Gazette-Mail.