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Storage Tank Bill Changes Met With Concern

Reported: Mar. 4, 2014 10:37 PM EST
Updated: Mar. 5, 2014 4:50 PM EST

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (Kera Mashek) -- Frustrations are boiling after a measure aimed at avoiding another water crisis is now stripped of many of its provisions.

Senate Bill 373 was filed just more than a week after the Jan. 9 chemical spill at Freedom Industries that tainted the water supply for 300,000 people. The main intention of the bill was to regulate chemical storage tanks, and require regular inspections. The legislation quickly made it through the Senate, but has been changed as it made its way through committees in the House.

Monday night, there was a major blow dealt to supporters of the law. The House Finance Committee took out some key components, including long-term health monitoring of medical problems resulting from exposure to the tainted water.

Now, there are efforts under way hoping to save the bill.

"It's time we do something," a protester said.

A small gathering, but strong words, during a protest including several environmental groups at the state Capitol Tuesday Those attending were angry that after weeks of public input, and progress made in getting stronger chemical storage regulation and public protection measures on the books, all aimed at preventing another water crisis, which are efforts that now seem wasted.

"It's very frustrating to come and kind of see the hours of work and compromise . . . some closed door meetings, to know those happen and know that those happen and then see amendments that strip out kind of the guts of the bill," said Karan Ireland of the newly formed Citizens Actively Protecting the Envrionment.

The House Finance Committee sided with an apparently strong group of lobbyists, who pushed to protect chemical companies. In the process, some say Senate Bill 373 was left with a lot of loopholes that would not stop another crisis. A provision that would have given the Bureau of Public Health the OK to monitor medical problems linked to the water crisis long-term was removed, as was a stipulation to require West Virginia American Water to install a higher grade detection system, that would have cost the water company $150,000.

"We voted on a couple of amendments that I don't think many of the members understood what they were doing," said Del. Nancy Peoples Guthrie, D-Kanawha.

But the disappointment about those votes is clear. For example, Dr. Rahul Gupta of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department believes some of the committee's concerns about the cost of medical monitoring could have been solved with compromise.

"If it was a true financial issue, there was nothing preventing those members not comfortable with a really high cost to put a cap there, say we're not going to spend more than $1 million or $2 million," Gupta said.

Aside from the heated debate about what is actually in the law, there is another big problem at stake: time. It's running out, with just four days left in session to pass a bill.

But lawmakers still insist the storage tank bill is a top priority.

"We're not done yet. Probably what you'll see are a bunch of amendments on the floor, and I'm hopeful that'll happen. And if it doesn't, it's a travesty," Peoples Guthrie said.

While there's a lot of attention on what has now been taken out of the bill, lawmakers insist there has been some good progress. The proposal now calls for all chemical facilities to be regulated the same, regardless if they're a major corporation or "fly-by-night" operation.

Next up, the bill goes before the full House Wednesday for debate, and environmentalists are calling for people to fill the chamber to make their voices heard.

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