CHARLESTON, W.Va. — After more than a month of debate by three committees, a half dozen hearings and about 100 amendments, the West Virginia House of Delegates has unanimously passed a bill in response to January’s Elk River chemical leak.
Everyone agreed on the need for a bill — it passed 95-0 – but no one could quite agree on what should be in it.
On Wednesday, for the third time this week, the House debated and tinkered late into the night on a bill regulating above-ground storage tanks, like the one at the Freedom Industries tank farm that contaminated the drinking water of 300,000 people.
Now that the bill has cleared the House, the differences with the Senate’s version must be ironed out and both bodies must re-approve the bill by Saturday night.
The House amended the bill to require the Bureau for Public Health to conduct a long-term study of health effects resulting from the chemical leak.
Both state and federal agencies are currently evaluating the records of more than 500 people who went to area hospitals reporting symptoms related to the water crisis, but are not currently doing more extensive studies of the population.
In advocating for more monitoring, Dr. Rahul Gupta, executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, has said the people who reported symptoms are the “tip of the iceberg.”
Delegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha, said Dr. Letitia Tierney, the commissioner of the Bureau for Public Health, had been inconsistent in her messages to lawmakers on the need for more study.
Tierney told a House committee earlier this week the bureau could do the study without legislation, but Poore and other delegates wanted to make sure the bureau did it, no matter who was in charge.
“Ms. Tierney, while she could keep her position, she might not be there next year,” Poore said.
Lawmakers defeated a provision that would allow people to sue their water company, nearby chemical tank-owners, the Bureau for Public Health or the DEP to enforce the provisions of the bill.
The House passed a provision that would require West Virginia American to install an early warning monitoring system that could alert plant operators to the presence of contaminants in source water.
That requirement had also been in an earlier version of the bill, but was removed by the Finance Committee after West Virginia American gave lawmakers an information sheet arguing that the required technology was not feasible, too onerous and expensive.
If the requirement does, in fact, prove unfeasible, the water company must report back to the legislature by next year with suggested alternatives…