The House voted on a bill Wednesday that aligns West Virginia's standards for some discharges into the state’s waters with federal limits. Opponents say the bill could put West Virginia’s drinking water supply at risk, but supporters maintain it has the potential to attract new industry to the state.
House Bill 2506 is a complicated and technical bill. But in a nutshell, it relates to how much of a substance can be released into West Virginia’s waterways under state permits and the places where those permits overlap. Essentially, it allows an increased discharge limit of cancer-causing and non-cancer causing chemicals into West Virginia’s streams and rivers, but only after certain calculations and observations have been made by the state Department of Environmental Protection. The DEP would decide if a new facility that planned to apply for a discharge permit could be built in an area close to other, already-permitted facilities.
Those against the bill say it would lower the quality of the state’s drinking water and be harmful to citizens. Supporters of the bill argue it would bring more jobs to the state, because organizations could build more facilities on vacant industrial properties.
Delegate Roger Hanshaw of Clay County, is the vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. He explained the bill to members of the chamber.
“The bill does not permit facilities to do anything that is out of compliance with the law," Hanshaw said, "The bill does not allow facilities to discharge materials that aren’t authorized today. The bill doesn’t allow individuals, or entities, or permit holders to discharge anything above and beyond the existing West Virginia Water Quality Standards. The bill has no relation whatsoever to catastrophic incidents.”
One of those catastrophic incidents Hanshaw was referring to was the January 9, 2014, Freedom Industry chemical leak in the Kanawha Valley. Hanshaw pointed out that the event was an accident at a facility that was not permitted to discharge into the Elk River outside of Charleston and the bill would not change that.
Democratic Del. Barbara Evans Fleischauer disagreed with Hanshaw’s assessment.
“Those of us who were in the legislature and the 300,000 other people who lost their water for up to a month, what? It has nothing to do with that? It has everything to do with that, because we know how precious our drinking water is. We know it, it’s been proven. I do not want us to be guinea pigs on lowering the water measuring measurements, so that we have the potential for more contamination,” Fleischauer said.
Delegate Mark Zatezelo is a Republican from Hancock County and the lead sponsor of the bill. He noted in his floor speech that he wasn’t sure how many jobs it would attract, but the potential was there.
“We’re in competition. We need tax base. We need to do things that we haven’t done for a while. It’s gonna be a very difficult job. It’s gonna be a lot of hard work, and we all need to be engaged," Zatezelo explained, "This is just a small thing, but it’s an important thing, and I do not, if I believed that it was gonna harm the water quality of West Virginia, I would be against it. I think this is a good bill, and I think it is the way for us to go.”
Democratic Delegate Mike Pushkin of Kanawha County, suggested there were other opportunities for the state to attract businesses.
“I, for one, think it’s time that we just stop believing this tired old lie that the only thing we’re good enough for here in West Virginia; the only kind of jobs we can attract in West Virginia, the only kind of economic development that we can have in West Virginia, the only kind of growth that we deserve here will be at the expense of our citizen’s health, will be at the expense of our citizen’s safety, at the expense of something as essential as the water that’s flowing from their tap,” Pushkin
Pushkin encouraged his fellow lawmakers to look for ways to use the state’s waterways as an economic driver by way of tourism.
Another Democrat, Delegate Shawn Fluharty, from Ohio County, opposed the bill.
“Here’s what we’ve been sold for decades, decades after decades;" Fluharty said, "it doesn’t matter who’s in power, Republican, Democratic whatsoever; we’ve been told just trust us. Just trust us. We don’t need coal mine safety, then a tragedy happens. Just trust us. We don’t need workers’ rights, then a tragedy happens. And then on this bill today, we’ve been told just trust us, the water’ll remain clean and the jobs will come raining down.”
In his closing remarks, Delegate Hanshaw encouraged lawmakers to separate fact from fiction.
“The most important thing in the practice of science is to divorce it from emotion," Hanshaw said, "because when we let emotion creep in to any decision, we cloud our judgement, and we ignore facts. Beware the shoehorn. Mr. Speaker, this bill doesn’t change water quality standards. This bill gives DEP the ability to do what it’s doing now in conformity with the law, and it makes West Virginia compatible with neighboring states.”
House Bill 2506 passed, 63 to 37, and now goes to the Senate for consideration.