Editor’s Note: The West Virginia Press Association hopes to provide our member newspapers with regular columns from the Governor, President of the Senate, Speaker of the House and Majority and Minority leaders in both chambers, along with the other State Constitutional Officers: Secretary of State, Attorney General, Treasurer, Auditor and Commissioner of Agricultural. The following column – from Senate President Jeff Kessler – is part of that program. These columns are made available for use at your newspaper’s discretion in print and online.
By Senator Jeff Kessler
President of the West Virginia Senate
By CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Like all West Virginians, I was deeply troubled by the chemical spill that has left 300,000 state residents without usable water for a full week and counting now. Last Thursday morning, as much as 7,500 gallons of a chemical, known as crude MCHM, leaked from a storage container owned by Freedom Industries into the Elk River. The chemical escaped through a cement block wall meant to be a secondary containment.
In the coming days the Legislature will take steps to determine why this happened while we also look at legislation to prevent it from ever happening again. As of now, the law relating to storing chemicals such as this is unclear.
State officials don’t believe Freedom Industries was required to follow a state law requiring industrial facilities to report an emergency within 15 minutes because the chemical in question is not on the DEP’s extremely hazard substance list. A different legislative rule states a facility must give “immediate” notice of a spill, but leaves it up to the head of the DEP to determine what “immediate” means in each case. The DEP also had not inspected the facility since 1991 because the company didn’t produce any chemicals or have any legal emissions.
Our lack of regulation failed us in this instance. I so often hear in the Legislature that government should get out of the way and make it easier for industry to do business. While there are some instances where regulation oversteps its bounds, I can think of 300,000 state residents that now wish we had clear, defined regulations on the books that would have prevented this tragedy.
That is why after careful calculation and study by my legislative team, we are looking at tightening regulations to require early notification of a spill, greater setbacks from water supplies for chemicals, and better alarm systems.
The Senate introduced legislation this week (Jan. 16) that will mandate all liquid holding tanks be regulated and regularly inspected by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. Under the provisions of Senate Bill 373, liquid holding facilities, except for those that contain water, would be registered and subject to inspection. At this point, the DEP doesn’t know the location of all the above-ground chemical tanks in the state, nor does the agency know what chemicals may be in them. This legislation would map those tanks through the registration process.
The Legislature has also taken decisive bipartisan action to help ease the economic burden that small businesses in the affected area of the water crisis have had to bare. The House of Delegates passed the West Virginia Small Business Emergency Act (HB4175) on Thursday (Jan. 16). The bill gives the Governor the authority to look at ways to help businesses recover their losses from the temporary shut down. I want to make sure that a wide variety of affected businesses are eligible for whatever funds or relief the Governor makes available. I look forward to working on this bill in the Senate.
It’s remarkable how West Virginians band together and help one another out in times of crisis. I was heartened by the response of our many volunteers, volunteer fire departments, medical professionals and everyone that gave of their time to lend a helping hand to their neighbor. It has often been said that the greatest resource in our state is its people. Never has this been more prevalent than in the past week.
If you would like to follow the daily action of the Legislature, visit the 81st Legislature on the web at http://www.legis.state.wv.us/.
I encourage all of you, regardless of party or affiliation, to contact me with any concerns you have regarding issues facing our district or our state. You can write to me at: Jeffrey V. Kessler, State Senate, Room 227M, Building 1 State Capitol Complex Charleston, WV 25305.