Changes Imperil Chemical Bill

Good, important bills can be amended to death in the West Virginia Legislature. That fate should not be permitted to befall a measure proposed in reaction to the disastrous Jan. 9 chemical spill in Kanawha County.

Within days of the spill that contaminated water supplies on which about 300,000 depended, lawmakers began work on a bill to guard against a similar disaster in the future. The idea was to provide regulations for chemical storage tanks near water supplies, along with inspections to ensure the rules are being followed.

State senators approved their version of the bill on Jan. 28. It then went to the House of Delegates Health and Human Resources Committee.

After a marathon session that started Sunday and went into the wee hours Monday, committee members approved the measure – with amendments. Among them is a provision requiring long-term health monitoring for those affected by the contaminated water. No provision for paying for the expensive provision is included in the bill.

HHR Committee members should not be blamed for the amendment frenzy. Many of the proposals originated outside the panel. Some even came from senators having second thoughts about what they had approved.

Committee members did have the good sense to reject some proposed changes. One of them would have made it easier for people to sue companies such as Freedom Industries, where neglect resulted in the Jan. 9 spill.

But the measure, as amended, still includes some provisions such as the health monitoring plan that merely muddy the waters, so to speak.

Lawmakers will end their current session at midnight Saturday. Between now and then, the House Judiciary Commitee must act on the bill. Then it will have to go back to the Senate, where there will be arguments over whether to approve the House version.

Even a “clean” bill – addressing only the initial purpose of regulating and inspecting chemical storage tanks – will have a difficult time of being approved by both houses of the Legislature before the midnight Saturday deadline. At this point, it may be too late to strip unnecessary amendments that should be addressed as separate bills. Still, lawmakers should try, in an effort to ensure the original goal of the bill is met.