CHARLESTON — In late November, members of a joint rule-making review committee voted against updating water quality standards, at the request of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association.
But while the Manufacturers Association continues to make that request, another group of West Virginia lawmakers voted Tuesday evening in opposition to it, instead choosing to update standards for 60 pollutants known to have human health effects allowed in state rivers and streams.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency recommended in 2015 that West Virginia update standards for amounts of 94 pollutants known to have human health effects, such as pesticides, allowed in West Virginia waterways.
Last year, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) released its proposal to update about 60 of those standards. For about two-thirds of the standards, less pollution would have been permitted in West Virginia waterways. For about one-third, more pollution would have been allowed.
The joint rule-making committee decided in late November to leave the standards the way they were instead, at levels enacted in the 1980s.
During that meeting, Rebecca McPhail, president of the Manufacturers Association, told lawmakers they wanted them to hold off on implementing new standards because West Virginians drink less water, eat less fish and are heavier than the national average. Water consumption and fish consumption are two ways people are exposed to the pollutants, and the EPA says heavier bodies are able to handle more pollutants.
She also said she had concerns about accuracy when testing for low levels of pollutants.
At the time, Scott Mandirola, DEP deputy cabinet secretary, told lawmakers the DEP would be "agreeable" to gathering more state-specific information if it was the will of the committee. He has said the EPA encourages states to consider state-specific information.
And when Del. Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, had asked Mandirola, who formerly served as director of the DEP Division of Water and Waste Management, whether he thought it would be a "good idea" to accept the Manufacturers Association’s request, Sen. Mark Maynard, R-Wayne, preventing Mandirola from answering, said it was a "policy decision."
Lawmakers had notified McPhail about the meeting. No one notified advocates for clean water.
Tuesday afternoon, during a meeting of the Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee, state Sen. Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha, proposed amending the bill back to DEP's original proposal, updating 60 water quality standards.
Lindsay asked Mandirola whether protecting human health was the purpose of updating standards.
"Correct," Mandirola said.
Also Tuesday, Lindsay asked if the DEP stood by its original proposal to update about 60 standards.
"We wouldn’t have submitted them if we didn’t stand by the science behind them," Mandirola said, adding that they would still have accepted additional "inputs."
Michael McCawley, an environmental health professor at West Virginia University School of Public Health, also testified Tuesday.
He suggests lawmakers go even farther to protect human health, and only update standards that allowed less pollution in the water, not the one-third that allowed more pollution. He has noted that companies are already used to complying with the more stringent standards.
Testifying Tuesday, McCawley, who is also a professor at WVU’s Cancer Institute, told lawmakers exposure to any level of carcinogen is like playing in traffic — it's never a good idea.
"If you're exposed to a carcinogen," he said, "there's a risk you will form cancer."
While the EPA assumes that heavier bodies can handle more carcinogens, McCawley has said the EPA doesn't consider that overweight bodies are also more likely to have other health problems, like inflammation, which can lead to cancer.
Following Lindsay's motion to amend the bill, Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, called a several-hour recess.
At 7 p.m., the committee reconvened and heard from a representative of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, the group's lawyer, David Yaussy.
He told them the association believed implementing the DEP's original proposal was not "good science or good policy."
He said the Manufacturers Association wants state-specific information, like fish-consumption data (which has already been incorporated) and "other factors" to be considered.
He also said that sewage is a bigger problem in West Virginia rivers and streams and that the DEP shouldn't consider all rivers and streams possible sources of drinking water.
A representative of the West Virginia Coal Association was also present at the Tuesday meeting.
Sen. Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, asked Mandirola if he had a problem with Lindsay's amendment — with updating the 60 standards after all.
"No, sir," Mandirola said.
The amendment passed with no nays heard. Sen. Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, and Sen. Sue Cline, R-Wyoming, who both represent parts of The Register-Herald coverage area, were both seen voting yes.
The bill, Senate Bill 167, then passed as well. It still needs to pass the full Senate and the House of Delegates before it would become law.
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