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This article was updated on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, to include information about a new reference to the House Health and Human Resources Committee.
The House of Delegates is on track to consider a bill that would exempt oil and gas operators closest to intake sites for drinking water from the 2014 Aboveground Storage Tank Act.
Under existing law, above-ground storage tanks holding water and other byproduct materials gathered from gas and oil drilling are subject to yearly inspections and rules for maintenance.
However, House Bill 2598 would exempt oil and gas operators, who own tanks located within five hours of an intake site for drinking water, from these requirements.
Since passing a law for above-ground tanks in 2014, state lawmakers already have exempted oil and gas companies who operate tanks at farther distances from intake sites.
A representative for the Department for Environmental Protection reported that this bill would apply to 887 oil and gas tank operators.
Advocates for the legislation brushed off most safety concerns Tuesday, arguing that these tanks hold mostly harmless brine water.
However, experts that testified before the House Energy and Manufacturing Committee pointed out this brine water also carries varying degrees of hazardous compounds like benzene and radium, which in high amounts can lead to cancer.
Phillip Reale, a lobbyist for oil and gas companies, told the committee on Tuesday that the bill will save costs for small operators who, by his estimate, are subject to more than 40 inspections a year through other laws established to protect water quality.
“It’s not like these aren’t being looked at,” said Reale, adding that most operators inspect their tanks independently to “preserve investment.”
“If there’s a serious issue here, it’s addressed as quickly as possible.”
However, Democrats on the committee, like Del. Kayla Young of Kanawha County, argued that the bill repeals a law that has been working well to prevent spills and contamination.
“I think those of us here in Kanawha County will never forget what happened in 2014,” Young said in committee Tuesday, referring to the Elk River chemical spill that lead to the Aboveground Storage Tank Act in the first place. “I have children. I’m sure a lot of you have children, and I want to know that their water is safe. And I don’t think this is the way to do that.”
Members of the Energy and Manufacturing Committee heard on Tuesday from Dorothy Vesper, a professor at West Virginia University who’s been studying West Virginia water resources since 2002.
The committee also heard testimony from Mark Kozar, a hydrologist for the United States Geological Survey.
Kozar helped author a report in 2016 that found the Ohio River, one of the state’s largest sources for drinking water, is especially susceptible to compounds that are associated with above-ground storage tanks, like benzene and radium.
Committee members spent more than an hour and a half questioning experts and debating the bill Tuesday. Del. Mark Zatezalo, R-Hancock, told lawmakers that as a hydrogeologist, he had a hard time believing the bill’s passage would have severe environmental impacts.
“I have a real hard time seeing impacts to the environment because of the small volume,” Zatezalo said. “The inspections that go on catch these things relatively fast. Not always perfectly, but relatively fast.”
Del. Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, said it’s likely that people can’t identify any recent examples of contamination because the Aboveground Storage Tank Act is doing its job.
“The system is working,” said Hansen, an environmental scientist. “The fact that we have had leaks and spills from some of these tanks, but those are getting less and less frequent, that’s a good thing.”
Although the committee on Tuesday rejected a request to do so by Del. Ed Evans, D-McDowell, the bill by Wednesday had been referred to the House Health and Human Resources Committee for consideration.
Committee chair Bill Anderson also denied requests from the public for a hearing on the bill, before the full House takes it up for a vote.
House Delegates agreed before session to amend the chamber’s rules for public hearings, in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
New, temporary rules for the 2021 session allow committee chairmen the discretion to deny a request for a public hearing, depending on timeliness, committee size and demands of staff.
Temporary rules also allow electronic hearings when possible.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.