U.S. Senate panel eyes bills to protect waterways after W.Va. chemical spill

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WASHINGTON -- A U.S. Senate panel is looking to strengthen inspection requirements for chemical storage after last month's chemical spill that contaminated West Virginia tap water, but the industry says it's already heavily regulated and that government instead should focus on enforcement.

Testimony at a hearing Tuesday focused on legislation that would set minimum federal standards for chemical storage, tank construction, leak-detection, financial responsibility, emergency response plans, chemical classification and disclosure of tank contents.

Inspectors would have to pay special attention to chemicals stored neared waterways.

West Virginia state officials also are asking senators to support a proposed 10-year study to monitor the long-term health of residents in the Kanawha Valley, the area affected by the Jan. 9 leak of methylcyclohexane methanol into the Elk River from storage containers owned by Freedom Industries.

The company since filed for bankruptcy in what senators characterized as an effort to avoid paying for the cleanup.

Methylcyclohexane methanol, a chemical used in coal processing, can cause organ damage and other problems if ingested.

The West Virginia spill left 300,000 people without safe drinking water for more than a week. Health officials have said the water is safe again, but many remain afraid to drink it, state officials testified.

"We must demand an explanation for how this happened," Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said in a written statement. "Freedom Industries and others must be held accountable for the appalling damage inflicted."

Mr. Rockefeller is a sponsor of the legislation, along with Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. They discussed their bill Tuesday morning at a meeting of the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife.

A separate bill introduced by a bipartisan coalition would require comprehensive testing of commercial chemicals.

"These two bills would go a long way in ensuring that every American has access to safe drinking water and that if, God forbid, an incident like this occurs again, we have the tools to respond as quickly and effectively as possible," Mr. Manchin said.

The National Association of Water Companies asked lawmakers also to require industries to disclose a list of chemicals they store upstream from water systems so water officials know what to monitor.

Otherwise, water providers "have no way to detect and respond to the presence of a contaminant until after it has already entered the distribution system," testified Brent Fewell, senior vice president of United Water, a member of the national association.

Randy C. Huffman, secretary of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, said the spill highlighted a risk all states face. More than 84,000 industrial chemicals are being used in the country today and not enough is known about them, he said.

That puts everyone in danger, he said.

Industry leaders, meanwhile, have concerns.

The International Liquid Terminals Association, which represents 80 commercial operators of above-ground facilities that store everything from vegetable oil to petroleum products, said enforcement is the answer, not increased regulation.

There already are numerous local, state and federal requirements involving tank integrity testing, disclosure rules, discharge limits, equipment inspections, leak detection, inventory control, emergency response, corrosion protection, worker training and more, testified association lobbyist R. Peter Weaver.

"Federal legislative action in response to Elk River at this moment would be premature," Mr. Weaver testified. "If Freedom Industries disregarded existing regulations, company operating procedures or industry standards, the most effective response would be stronger enforcement, rather than the promulgation of new legislation and subsequent regulation."

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., urged a tempered legislative response.

"I'm not sure Congress can ever completely legislate away the irresponsibility and the disregard for public welfare demonstrated by Freedom Industries," he said.

But Ms. Boxer said she wants to pass a meaningful bill, not one that gives people the illusion of protection from unsafe drinking water. And she wants to do it soon.

"We've got people suffering [and] you've got a rogue operator like this -- cowards -- running away," she said. "It is a violation of basic human decency, and we have to protect the people," she said. It is a "most basic right to be able to take a glass of water and not worry that your kids are going to get cancer, OK? Let's put it that way."

Natalie E. Tennant, West Virginia secretary of state, wants expeditious action.

"People are fed up. They are angry, and they are scared," she said. "As the mother of an 11-year-old daughter living in Kanawha County, I share their concerns. As their secretary of state, I demand answers."

The spill cost restaurants money, and the economy cannot recover until people regain confidence in the water supply, Ms. Tennant said.

"The time has come to update and modernize the laws that protect our drinking water," she said.

Bureau chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com, 1-703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.

Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets. First Published February 4, 2014 1:20 PM

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