WHEELING - Last month's chemical leak into the Elk River that contaminated the water supply of more than 300,000 people in southern West Virginia highlights the need for uniform regulation of above-ground storage tanks, witnesses told a Senate subcommittee Tuesday.
Although most states have similar regulations for underground storage tanks, the same cannot be said for above-ground tanks such as the one that failed Jan. 9 at Freedom Industries' Charleston facility, West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman testified during a two-hour hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works' Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife.
Sens. Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.Va., and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., have introduced a bill that would require states to set minimum standards for inspection of above-ground chemical storage facilities - at least once every five years for all sites, and once every three for those close to a public drinking water supply.
A pending bill in the West Virginia Legislature would set even tighter demands for inspections, calling for annual reviews of above ground storage tanks and requiring public water systems be notified when a toxic chemical is stored nearby - but proponents of the federal legislation believe Congress must act when lax rules in some states threaten the safety of water in others.
"The bottom line is that no West Virginian - or American - should have to worry about the safety of their drinking water from a chemical spill," Manchin said.
Witnesses during the two-hour hearing included Manchin, Rockefeller, Reps. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., Huffman, West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant and various water treatment experts.
Also among those making the case for federal action during Tuesday's hearing was Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Tighter regulation is crucial, he said, because many water utilities are limited in their ability to keep toxins out of their systems when contamination occurs.
"The water intake at Charleston simply cannot be shut off. ... This is true not just in Charleston but, I'm learning, in many water utilities across the country where they don't have the capacity simply to shut off when there's a spill," Olson said.
Although they're likely to be general election opponents to succeed the retiring Rockefeller, Capito and Tennant had a similar message for the committee: Those in the nine counties affected by the Freedom Industries leak are outraged and frightened.
Tennant said the owner of a popular Charleston restaurant told her the business lost $40,000 during the water crisis and is spending an additional $500 per day on bottled water "because customers don't trust what's coming out of the tap."
"West Virginians need answers now. The water ban has been lifted, but too many West Virginians are wondering if their water is really safe. ... Quite frankly, people are fed up, they're angry and they're scared," Tennant said.
Capito said she was most disappointed by what she called "a slow bleed of misinformation" during the water crisis. Proclamations the water was safe were followed by warnings pregnant women shouldn't drink it. That was followed by revelations of a second chemical that leaked into the river, and Capito said it's no wonder people don't know what to believe anymore.
"It has rocked our confidence. ... I understand the fear and trepidation and anger that people feel, because I feel it too," Capito said.
The committee also heard from a leader of an organization that represents dozens of chemical storage companies and a Washington, D.C. lawyer whose practice focuses on defending against claims of illness or injury from alleged toxic substances. Both urged Congress to move cautiously before enacting any new regulations.
R. Peter Weaver, vice president of government affairs for the International Liquid Terminals Association - which represents more than 80 chemical storage companies, but not Freedom Industries - believes Congress should wait for a full report on what happened before taking action.
"If Freedom Industries disregarded applicable regulations, industry standards or its own operating procedures, the most effective response would be through more consistent enforcement rather than administrative burden and, frankly, the confusion of another layer of legislation and regulation," Weaver said.
But Rockefeller believes the effectiveness of allowing industry to police itself is "an Appalachian myth."
Corporations "will cut corners, and they will get away with it," Rockefeller said. "Regulation is soft in West Virginia. It's always been soft."