Charleston – Four years after the federal Environmental Protection Agency recommended states set new limits on pollutants in their waterways, West Virginia lawmakers gave a manufacturers trade group extra time to comply, allowing them to conduct their own review of the recommendations.

Thursday, during a water quality standards meeting of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, Jennie Henthorn, a scientist representing the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, said she is struggling to complete the review in the time allotted.

During the 2019 legislative session ending in March of this year, the Legislature gave the Manufacturers Association until October to conduct its review.

Henthorn, of Henthorn Environmental, said she and assistants found 75 new studies in two days on the pollutants, and that the vast majority of the studies the EPA considered are more than 20 years old.

She also said the EPA hasn't provided her with the full title of each study they considered in their recommendations, so they have only been able to find 119 of 161 studies. 

"We're struggling with the fact that we can't find the old studies," she said. "We're struggling with the fact that we found so many new studies so quickly and we've only scratched the tip of the iceberg there. I would think that if I found 75 in a couple of days, the database itself is probably in the hundreds range, not in the 75 range, and we don't know what to do about that because this is supposed to be a complete exercise. It took EPA 13 years to add in 12 studies. There's no way for us to add in several hundred studies in a couple of months.

"We just physically can't do that. That's beyond our capabilities."

In 2015, the EPA recommended that West Virginia update water quality standards for 94 pollutants known to have human health effects, including carcinogens. The standards specify concentrations of pollutants, such as pesticides, allowed in rivers and streams.

The EPA had changed the way it calculates the standards, taking into account that people were heavier, eating more fish, and drinking more water. It also began using a new way of calculating how likely a chemical is to build up in a fish's body.

In May 2018, following hundreds of public comments, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection submitted to the Legislature its proposal for a regulation that would have updated standards for pollutants known to have human health effects for 56 pollutants. For two-thirds of the pollutants, the proposal would have required lower amounts of those pollutants in rivers and streams. 

During the 2019 legislative session, at the request of the Manufacturers Association, West Virginia lawmakers opted not to do so, while Henthorn reviewed the recommendations. The Legislature would then revisit the subject in the 2021 legislative session.

Thursday afternoon, at the DEP offices in Charleston, Henthorn told about 10 people in attendance, and several by conference call, that she'd found numerous problems with the EPA's recommendations.

She also told them that she is reviewing how the EPA came up with their recommendations, including how heavily different factors, such as the fattiness and oiliness of the fish, or the temperature of the water, played into their proposal. She said they plan to look at whether there is West Virginia-specific information available on those factors. 

The EPA allows states to deviate from water quality standards based on state-specific information. For instance, the DEP's original proposal for water quality standards incorporated the fact that West Virginians eat less fish. 

But there is no guarantee that once Henthorn completes her review, that state-specific information will be available. Asked by a reporter whether the DEP had that state-specific information, Laura Cooper, assistant director of the DEP's Division of Water and Waste Management, said she'd have to look into that. 

Autumn Crowe, staff scientist for the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, said it "seems like they’re picking apart the EPA’s study to invalidate the updates to the human health criteria."

She agreed with Henthorn that the EPA should be using newer science.

But she also felt that West Virginia lawmakers could have chosen to err on the side of caution and opted to strengthen water quality standards while the Manufacturers Association conducted its review. The standards could be revisited later.

Crowe said she worried that Henthorn's findings will mean updating West Virginia water quality standards may take even longer. 

She said she believes that we already have "information that we could be using to strengthen our water quality standards, but instead we’re picking apart that data to argue why we don’t need to, and that is not good for West Virginia’s water and our human health." 

Crowe said her group's "biggest concern is we aren’t going to see any new updates because they will find a reason to invalidate the updates from EPA."

Henthorn declined to make any public comment following the meeting. 

Originally, the Manufacturers Association had said West Virginia should hold off on implementing the EPA's recommendations, in part, because of West Virginians' higher body weight. The EPA considers heavier bodies able to handle more pollutants. The association has said it is not considering that factor in its review.

Email: ebeck@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @3littleredbones

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