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New Law Brings Policing Effort To Chemical Storage Tanks

Reported: Apr. 24, 2014 11:20 PM EDT
Updated: Apr. 24, 2014 11:42 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (Stefano DiPietrantonio) - New legislation is on the books now, which will more strictly regulate chemical facilities like Freedom Industries. Senate Bill 373 is now law, and it brings a whole new policing effort to any future spills.

The hope is that it will minimize risk. Eyewitness News sat down exclusively, with West Virginia Department Of Environmental Protection head Randy Huffman, who said Senate Bill 373 gave them the one thing they needed, should another spill happen - the power to police above-ground tanks and secondary containment with mandatory, yearly inspections.

At the Eyewitness News town hall meeting on Tuesday, Senate Bill 373 was front and center, as well as what’s being done now to prevent another chemical leak nightmare from happening.

Sen. John Unger, Democratic Majority Leader from Berkley County, who drafted the so-called “Spill Bill,” said public support for this legislation, was unprecedented.

"Not one person voted against it," Unger said. "And the reason for that was because you are watching. Every single step. Every amendment. Every little maneuver, you were watching."

And with eyes wide open now, Huffman said Senate Bill 373 gives the DEP an arsenal it has never had before.

"We now have the authority to require owners and operators of these tanks to inspect tanks and certify that they are up to standards,” Huffman said. “We didn't have that before. Did we close-up all the gaps? Don't know the answer to that, but I'm confident we're going to minimalize the risk."

Huffman said the DEP can now force companies into compliance, or shut them down until a problem gets fixed. Until now, DEP had only monitored tanks from a storm runoff perspective. Freedom Industries had a permit for that.

"There was no requirement to certify the integrity of these tanks and secondary containment,” Huffman said. “That's the loophole, if you will."
In the chemical spill's aftermath, the DEP took a lot of heat about inspections.

"I could have inspected it on Jan. 8, and it would not have prevented this, because what happened was not something you could pick up with the naked eye," Huffman said.

So what will be different now?

"Who is going to perform these inspections? Who's going to evaluate them, what criteria are they going to use to evaluate them?," asked man at the town hall meeting.

Eyewitness News asked Huffman, and he said yearly inspections by DEP officials and taking a tank inventory statewide is a healthy start.

Huffman was asked why the DEP did not look into this 10 or 20 years ago.

“People ask DEP, why didn't you look at this? We have to have regulatory authority,” Huffman said. “I'm not going to point the finger at anybody, but we made a decision, as a society, we were going to regulate underground storage tanks. Now is it possible, above-ground storage tanks were specifically exempted when they started talking about regulating underground storage tanks? I think so, but I don't have records to prove it one way or the other."

For some reason, structural integrity was never part of previous legislation. It sounds obvious now.

Huffman thinks we're going to see a move nationally, for more inspections, after the rest of the country witnessed what happened in West Virginia. There are thousands of chemical tanks near water intakes statewide.

"We're talking about any chemical other than H20, so that is much more inclusive than any definition that we would have ever thought of before, when we were thinking of chemicals," Huffman said.

Huffman said he had never heard of MCHM prior to the spill, and that everyone got their education going into the water crisis.

"How can I be assured my exposure to this won't impact any children I have in the future?" a woman asked the panel at the LaBelle Theater Tuesday during the town hall meeting.

The answer is we don't know, because there have been no studies on the long-term effects of MCHM exposure to humans. As for critic, who said we were not being told the whole story, as it was happening?

"The Governor had everyone's best interests,” Huffman said. “We did not withhold a single piece of information. We didn't manipulate a single piece of information. People felt like they weren't being told the truth. We were telling you everything that we could verify."

"How are you going to give individual consumers relief for their bills?" another woman asked of the panel.

That's still up for debate, but the new law has fees built-in, for a new “Protect Our Water” fund.

"Do you feel like you have adequate staffing and resources to do the oversight and enforcement that's required?," asked another woman in the audience.
Huffman said there are tens of thousands of tanks statewide. They're working on an inventory right now, then will look at staffing.

Unger said people watching carefully is how the eventual law got so well-tailored.

"Now, you have to continue watching. We have to continue to focus on this and monitor this and also hold your elected officials accountable for everything we do," Unger said.

Tank owners will pay two fees, which go into the “Protect Our Water” fund. So, unlike back in January, when there was no money in place to help people once FEMA dollars dried up, there will be a financial mechanism in place.

Huffman also said the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department will oversee the mandated, leak detection system West Virginia American Water, will have to install.

The DEP is taking public input on the rules of inspection until the middle of May, allowing citizens to give their input.



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