By HOPPY KERCHEVAL
CHARLESTON -- A divide quickly has developed in the West Virginia Legislature over how best to prevent another water emergency like the one that has impacted thousands of West Virginia American Water Company customers.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin came out with his plan Monday. The 36-page bill empowers the state Division of Environmental Protection to regulate above ground storage tanks -- like the one that leaked at Freedom Industries -- and permit and inspect existing and new tanks.
However, some of the specifics of the bill, as well as the tone, do not sit well with state Senate Majority Leader John Unger. The Berkeley County Democrat says the Governor’s bill is too limited.
“It seems to focus more on industry protection than water,” Unger said Tuesday on Metronews Talkline.
Unger takes issue with the tone the Governor’s bill sets in its introduction. The very first sentence under the “legislative findings and purpose” section says, “The Legislature recognizes that industrial businesses are vital to our economy, create good-paying jobs with benefits for our citizens, and ensure that commerce will continue to flourish in West Virginia.”
Unger’s bill, SB 373, begins with a different approach. “The West Virginia Legislature finds that it is the public policy of the State of West Virginia to protect and conserve the water resources of the state and to provide for the public welfare.”
There are important differences in the details, as well.
Unger’s legislation targets virtually all above ground storage tanks anywhere in the state with only a few exceptions. Tomblin’s bill provides more exemptions and establishes “zones of critical concern” where the rules will apply.
“The Governor’s bill is very, very narrow,” Unger said.
However, state Division of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman, who supports the Governor’s bill, says he’s confident that if it were already in place it would have prevented the Freedom Industries leak, without creating an excessive hardship on businesses. The bill, he says, is about “managing the risk.”
The legislative winds can and do change quickly. However, I’m told that it will be Unger’s bill -- with a few changes -- not the Governor’s bill that will be taken up in the Senate Natural Resources Committee. That may send a signal to Tomblin that he needs to compromise, which he says he’s willing to do.
“This bill is one we had to put together fairly quickly,” Tomblin said Tuesday. “I’m willing to work with legislative leaders to make sure the job is done and to make sure the people’s health and safety are looked after.”
Still, compromise could be a tricky proposition. Tomblin does not want a legislative overreach that damages the state’s tenuous business climate. However, the water emergency has deeply impacted thousands of West Virginians, shaking their confidence in the health and safety of the water supply and the state’s ability to protect it.
Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday.