The West Virginia House of Delegates judiciary committee rejected attempts by Democrats on Thursday to amend a bill to update water quality protections.
Del. Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia and one of the lawmakers who proposed the amendment, said that not adopting the amendment would mean relying on science more than 20 years old. She also referenced the 2014 Freedom Industries chemical spill, which tainted the water for 300,000 people in the Kanawha Valley.
"I was here when that happened," she said. "Many of you in this room were here in the valley. I can remember when they made all of us leave the Capitol. They put garbage bags over the sinks, and I know a lot of people who had to go to the hospital. I have a grandson that I don't know when they started not using bottled water to bathe the baby.
"It was a very calamitous accident, and I think people in our state are very concerned about their drinking water... I had over 235 emails on this issue alone from all across the state, many from my district, and from all across the state. This is something that very much concerns people."
Lawmakers rejected her amendment on a voice vote.
Last year, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection 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.
Fleischauer said, during the meeting Thursday, that West Virginians likely eat less fish because of a statewide mercury advisory and noted that the number of coal-burning power plants in the state could mean we have more mercury in the water than other states.
The joint rule-making review committee agreed to the Manufacturers Association's request. Another legislative committee put the stricter standards back in, but earlier this 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.
Advocates for clean water have criticized the delay, saying the standards were first recommended in 2015. Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, the judiciary chairman, had characterized the delay as a compromise that "pleases absolutely no one" but the Manufacturers Association has said it had agreed to it, while advocates for clean water have said they weren't consulted.
While Trump unveiled the proposal to delay implementing the standards, a public records request found that Sen. Glenn Jeffries, D-Putnam, was the lawmaker who emailed back and forth with the Manufacturers Association to work on the language for the proposal.
In an email Thursday Jeffries said:
"I closely worked with all sides involved to find a solution. No one is completely happy, but we now have a way forward with specific timelines the DEP and manufacturers must meet within the next 14 months."
He also noted that Thursday, the Senate introduced SCR 39, that requests the Speaker and President form a select committee to study state water quality standards, procedures and policies.
"In the discussions over the rule, members came to believe we need a better understanding of state water quality standards," he said.
Advocates for clean water have said that Dow Chemical has threatened to leave the state over the standards. Dow has not returned reporters' phone calls.
In response to an email Thursday seeking more information on the economic impact of the bill, Rebecca McPhail, president of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, said:
"Our interest is making certain that careful consideration is given to state specific inputs as recommended by the US EPA. 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. That isn’t specific to any particular company, but part of the overall issue."
Karan Ireland, government affairs director for the West Virginia Environmental Council, said the committee's decision Thursday was "just another example of the Legislature catering to big money interests."
"All one has to do is read the papers or watch Netflix to learn about serious water problems across the state and how they impact public health," she said. "But the Legislature continues to take a 'wait and see' approach? Come on. These folks clearly aren't in tune with the wishes of their constituents – well, except for very few."
Senate Bill 163, which contains numerous other provisions, now goes to the House floor for a vote there. If it passes there, it will then go to the governor for his signature.
This story has been corrected to state that senators had introduced, not passed SCR 39, that requests the Speaker and President form a select committee to study state water quality.
Email: email@example.com and follow on Twitter @3littleredbones