CHARLESTON — West Virginia state senators on Thursday voted to give industry two years before stronger water quality standards, first recommended by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 2015, could be implemented.
While Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan and the Senate Judiciary Chair, has said that neither industry nor advocates for clean water were satisfied with the bill, the West Virginia Manufacturers Association said they agreed to it while advocates for clean water said they did not.
Senate Bill 163 passed 20-12 in the Senate, mostly along party lines, and now goes to the House of Delegates.
Along with giving the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) the authority to promulgate rules in several areas, such as air quality and hazardous waste management, it also includes a controversial provision related to the concentrations of certain pollutants, including cancer-causing chemicals, allowed in West Virginia rivers and streams.
In 2015, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommended the state update the concentrations of pollutants, including pesticides, allowed in West Virginia waterways. It made recommendations for 94 pollutants known to have human health effects. West Virginia is required to review those standards every three years.
Last year, the DEP released its proposal to update standards for about 60 of those pollutants instead. For about two-thirds of the standards, less pollution would have been allowed in the water, and for about one-third, more pollution would have been allowed.
One legislative committee voted not to approve that proposal, at the request of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association in November. Another committee, last month, voted to adopt the DEP's proposal after all.
Then, during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting last week, Sen. Trump unveiled a proposal to give industry 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 delay was approved in a voice vote.
The federal EPA allows states to consider state-specific information when developing the standards. The Manufacturers Association, which has commissioned an analysis of state-specific information to present to the DEP, argues that West Virginians drink less water, which is one of the ways people are exposed to the pollutants. It also argues that West Virginians are heavier than people in other states. The EPA considers heavier bodies able to handle more pollution.
In a speech before the vote Thursday, Trump said the delay until 2021 was a compromise "not in the sense we normally think of, where it's a middle ground on which everybody agrees." Instead, he said the delay pleased neither side and "splits the difference in a way that pleases absolutely no one."
Still, Rebecca McPhail of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, says her group was "willing to concede" to the delay.
"The committee substitute allows more time for the WVMA to do work we’ve asked to be allowed to do," she said. "The addition of date specific language was something we were willing to concede to demonstrate our ... commitment and doing so in a timely fashion."
She noted that several other states haven't implemented the 2015 standards.
In an interview following the vote, Sen. Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, who voted with Republicans for the bill, said he was swayed by Trump's argument, as he hadn't been on a committee that reviewed the standards. He said no environmental advocates had reached out to him directly, although he noted he has hundreds of unread emails.
In another interview following the vote, Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, said she was disappointed that Trump held a private meeting for stakeholders that included two clean water advocates and 30 industry representatives, then invited no scientists or public health experts to speak in the judiciary committee meeting. The bill passed with little discussion during that meeting.
"When that happens, I think it reinforces the public's frustration that they feel like their voice isn't heard and that industry lobbyists rule the roost around here," she said.
She said that the manufacturers have had several years to gather state-specific information and questioned the impartiality of a study of state-specific information the Manufacturers Association has recently commissioned.
Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, who voted "no" on Thursday, is in the Senate Judiciary Committee and said he abstained from voting during the committee vote because he'd understood they'd convened to vote on another bill and hadn't been able to gather input on the new proposal.
Sen. Sue Cline, R-Wyoming, who also voted for the bill, denied a second request to talk about the legislation on Thursday. Sen. Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, along with Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, did not vote.
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