Charleston – Members of the West Virginia Legislature, which in years past has ignored recommendations meant to ensure West Virginians don't lose access to drinking water, may take action this legislative session on those water protection recommendations.
During a meeting of the Joint Legislative Oversight Commission on Water Resources Tuesday, Senator Randy Smith, R- Tucker and chairman of the commission, said lawmakers anticipate working on bills to implement some recommendations in a 2018 report by the Public Water System Supply Study Commission.
Lawmakers established the Public Water System Supply Study Commission in a 2014 law following the Freedom Industries chemical spill in January of that year, which left 300,000 people in the Kanawha Valley area without access to public drinking water.
During the meeting Tuesday, Senator Corey Palumbo, D- Kanawha, asked Smith if the group had plans to meet again during the legislative session, which begins Wednesday.
"I think a lot of this is not going to take any money, just notifications, and I can’t see any reason why we can’t have some legislative bills to close the loopholes," Smith said.
He said he’d like to meet at least once or twice over session. The group also met last month.
"It's our plan now, since we're on a roll, so to speak," Smith said, "that we keep the ball rolling so it doesn't get put on the wayside again."
Dr. Catherine Slemp, state health officer and chair of the Public Water System Supply Study Commission, had sent the 2018 report, the commission's final report, to Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R- Jackson, and Speaker of the House Roger Hanshaw, R- Clay, in December of 2018.
Delegate Evan Hansen, D- Monongalia, an environmental scientist and a member of both commissions, said though that no committees had reviewed the recommendations until the meeting Tuesday, at the request of Hansen, and two other lawmakers, Palumbo and Senator Stephen Baldwin, D- Greenbrier.
"This was a 2018 report, December 2018, and frankly it's sat at the Legislature and nobody looked at it until today," Hansen said.
According to its report, the commission submitted recommendations in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 to the Legislature's Joint Committee on Government Finance, made up of legislative leaders and currently headed by Speaker of the House Roger Hanshaw, R- Clay, and Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R- Jackson. To Hansen's knowledge, lawmakers only placed those recommendations on an agenda for consideration once.
Tuesday, Hansen highlighted several recommendations for the group's consideration.
As a requirement of the 2014 bill, public water systems were required to submit estimates for the cost of creating alternative methods of water access in the event water becomes tainted. The total cost would be $380 million.
"One of the most important things that we do as a state government is invest in our infrastructure," Hansen said. "Our drinking water infrastructure is arguably the most important."
Hansen recommended that lawmakers review and consider allocating funding toward the estimated cost, or at least allocate funding toward those water systems that serve the largest number of people.
"I think it's important for us as legislators to see this and to think about whether there are ways that we could facilitate funding some of these projects, because we saw what could happen to a water system that has no alternative source of water," Hansen said.
Ways to prepare for such an event could include storing water, establishing another water intake in the water supply, or connecting to a neighboring water system.
Hansen also pointed to a recommendation that the Legislature allocate $40 million annually to the WV Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council. He said since the water crisis, the council now gives higher priority when awarding grants to water protection projects.
According to the report though, the Legislature has reduced that amount, making it hard for public water systems to implement plans to protect their drinking water.
"This is a real challenge for West Virginia, especially for parts of the state that are declining in population," Hansen said. "Because you have fewer and fewer rate-payers for the size of a system that was built for a larger number of people."
He pointed to a recommendation that the Legislature allocate $2 million annually to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources's Bureau of Public Health for drinking water protection efforts. In 2017, the Legislature allocated $1.7 million, according to the report. Commission members would like the funding to be recurring.
The commission also recommends that an outside organization come in to review problems with the state's Spill Reporting Hotline. Even though companies that accidentally discharge contaminants into the water may report those spills, according to the report, downstream water systems and and the Bureau for Public Health are still not routinely receiving that information.
The commission recommended an outside organization come in to review why, and additional training for those answering the calls.
Hansen also pointed to a recommendation that would require the DHHR and West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to notify downstream water utilities "as soon as possible with as much detail as possible" about changes to substances contained in above-ground storage tanks upstream, so that those utilities could better prepare for potential spills.
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