House of Delegates passes bill without updated human health water quality standards

Rebecca McPhail, president of the WV Manufacturers Association, spoke during the West Virginia Press Association Legislative Lookahead at the Culture Center in Charleston. (Rick Barbero/The Register-Herald)

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia House of Delegates on Tuesday passed a rules bill that includes a provision opposed by advocates for clean water.

The West Virginia Legislature approves rules proposed by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Last year, the West Virginia DEP released a proposal to update about 60 water quality standards, based on recommendations the federal Environmental Protection Agency made in 2015.

The standards specify concentrations of pollutants known to have human health effects, including cancer-causing chemicals, allowed in rivers and streams. For the majority of the standards, less pollution would have been allowed in West Virginia waterways.

But in November, the West Virginia Manufacturers Association asked the joint rule-making review committee not to implement the standards. 

They argue that the EPA encourages states to incorporate state-specific science, and that because West Virginians are heavier, their bodies can handle more pollutants, and that because they drink less water, they are less exposed to the pollutants. They have commissioned a worker to gather that state-specific information.

The joint rule-making review committee agreed to the Manufacturers Association's request. Another legislative committee put the stricter standards back in, but last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to give the Manufacturers Association until October 2019 to gather more state-specific information to present to the DEP, in hopes of altering the proposal and considering the bill during the 2021 legislative session. 

The economic impact of implementing the standards is unclear. Advocates for clean water have said Dow Chemical has threatened to leave the state. Dow has not returned reporter calls, but was apparently ready to testify and wasn't called on during a committee meeting, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

In response to an email seeking more information on the economic impact, Rebecca McPhail, president of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, said, "Of course when you talk about regulations that require significant capital investment in order to comply — without demonstrated health/environmental benefit — companies will carefully consider future operations relative to production in other states which take an equally protective but balanced approach."

Meanwhile, Michael McCawley, an environmental health professor at West Virginia University School of Public Health, as well as a professor at WVU’s Cancer Institute, has said that any amount of a carcinogen can be cancer-causing, and that heavier bodies may already have other problems, like inflammation, that increase risk for cancer. 

During debate Tuesday morning, Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, noted he represents the Chemical Valley, but jobs began to decline long ago, before the Obama administration set out to strengthen environmental protections. 

"I think what we’re going to be left with is a high cancer rate and a high unemployment rate," he said.

Dels. John Shott, R-Mercer, and Geoff Foster, R-Putnam, stood in support of the bill, noting that the water quality provision was part of an overall rules bundle with numerous other provisions. 

The West Virginia Rivers Coalition and West Virginia Environmental Council have accused lawmakers of catering to industry.

Delegate Evan Hansen, D- Monongalia, who had attempted to amend strengthened water quality protections into the bill Monday, has said that DEP would give companies years to comply with the new standards.

The bill had already passed the state Senate. It passed the House of Delegates, 78-22. 

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