Emily Allen Published

House Passes Bill To Exempt Oil, Gas Operators From Aboveground Storage Tank Act

House Energy and Manufacturing Chair Bill Anderson, R-Wood, speaks to House Bill 2598 on Wednesday, March 10, 2021.

The West Virginia House of Delegates voted Wednesday to roll back regulation of above-ground storage tanks owned by oil and gas operators.

House Bill 2598 applies to some of the only oil and gas tanks still regulated by the 2014 Aboveground Storage Tank Act, since most other oil and gas tanks have been exempted from the law in the last seven years since its passage.

The tanks are used by operators to store byproducts from drilling oil and gas — mostly brine water, but as some experts testified to the House Energy and Manufacturing Committee last month, the tanks are also known to hold pollutants like benzene, barium and radium, which can lead to anemia, high blood pressure and cancer.

While supporters of House Bill 2598 said Wednesday the bill could help small oil and gas operators, overwhelmed by regulation costs, opponents say it walks back important regulations protecting West Virginia water quality.

Those who oppose the bill include the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the implementation of the Aboveground Storage Tank Act.

The DEP estimates that the bill will free roughly 890 new tanks from its regulation, all of which are within five hours of public drinking water intakes.

“These are tanks in zones of critical concern,” said Deputy Cabinet Secretary Scott Mandirola on Wednesday. “These are the sources of potential significant contamination that water utilities have to identify.”

Others who have spoken out against the bill — including environmental advocacy groups like the West Virginia Rivers Coalition and the West Virginia Environmental Council — say that House Bill 2598 is a step backward from laws enacted seven years ago following the Freedom Industries Spill of 2014, which left more than 300,000 West Virginians without drinking water for a week after a storage tank leaked more than 10,000 gallons of toxic materials into the Elk River.

“The Freedom Industry tank of 2014 was not a brine tank, it was not a crude oil tank,” said House Energy and Manufacturing Committee Chair Bill Anderson, R-Wood. “Let’s draw that distinction right here, and right now.”

According to Anderson, the bill supports his committee’s work over the last three years to address more than 4,500 abandoned natural gas wells across the state.

“If we do not give some relief to these operators, we’re going to add several hundred more tanks, where people are going to be going bankrupt, and leaving us additional tanks to plug,” Anderson said.

Others who spoke in favor of the bill included Dels. Roger Conley, R-Wood, and Clay Riley, R-Harrison, both who said they have done work in industries tied to the inspection of these tanks.

Democrats, including those who lived in Charleston during the Freedom Industries spill of 2014, said the bill would undo an important law.

“Every parent worries about the first time they’re gonna have to protect their child against some sort of imminent danger, ” said Del. Kayla Young, D-Kanawha. Young was a new mother living in Kanawha County at the time of the spill.

“My danger was the faucet. One day, I’ll have to explain to him why he had bottled water baths for the first year of his life. … And one day, I’ll have to explain to him why I was part of a government that could let that happen to other people’s children.”

Before passing the House, supporters — including House Energy and Manufacturing Vice Chair John Kelly, R-Wood — pointed to a low number of leaks since the Aboveground Storage Tank Act’s enactment.

Del. Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, told members Wednesday this isn’t a reason to exempt oil and gas tank operators, but rather a sign that the law is doing its job.

“We’ve heard that leaks have occurred from these tanks and have not impacted our drinking water,” Hansen said. “That’s a good thing. That’s because this program is working.”

The bill, which passed the House 74 to 26 with two Kanawha County Republicans voting against it, moves onto the Senate for further consideration.

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.