GOP-Controlled West Virginia Legislature Passes Bill Rolling Back Regulations On Chemical Storage Tanks

Katie Valentine

Katie Valentine Deputy Editor, Climate Progress

The West Virginia legislature has passed a bill that scales back regulations meant to protect state waterways from storage tank spills, a piece of legislation that some worry could leave the state’s water more vulnerable to the kind of spill that contaminated the water of 300,000 state residents last year.

The bill, which was passed by the state Senate early Saturday morning, rolls back portions of a law passed last year in response to January’s spill, which occurred due to a leak in a chemical storage tank along the banks of the Elk River. Under the law, known as the Aboveground Storage Tank Act, nearly 50,000 aboveground storage tanks in the state were subject to registration and regulation. Now, under the new bill, the number of regulated tanks will fall to about 12,000. Those 12,000 are tanks that are located in “zones of critical concern,” which means they’re situated along a waterway and about five hours away from a drinking water intake. They also include tanks that hold more than 50,000 gallons, tanks that hold hazardous substances and tanks that are in the “zone of peripheral concern,” which are those located 10 hours away from a drinking water intake.

That number could drop even further, said Evan Hansen, president of West Virginia think tank Downstream Strategies. Under the new bill, which is expected to be signed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D), owners of those 12,000 tanks have the ability to opt out of the regulations if they’re already being regulated by a different permit. And, if the tank owners do opt out, that means they may not be subject to regulations as stringent as those in the Aboveground Storage Tank Act.

“So the big question regarding the bill is what additional protections — if any — are going to be provided on those 12,000 tanks that remain,” Hansen told ThinkProgress.

The bill also changes the regulations in the Storage Tank Act, a key piece of legislation that, as the Wall Street Journal notes, enabled West Virginia to create an inventory of its aboveground storage tanks for the first time. Currently, West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection requires aboveground storage tanks located in zones of critical concern to be inspected once every year. Now, under the new bill, those tanks will be inspected once every three years.

Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, told ThinkProgress that she’s worried about the tanks that are exempted in the bill. She said that tanks that are located further away from water intakes could still pose a major threat to water supplies, and that the bill ignored the threat aboveground storage tanks posed to private wells. She also said she thought many people in West Virginia were disappointed to see the protections enacted after last year’s chemical spill rolled back.

“People are very disappointed and discouraged,” she said. “They feel like the politicians have turned their backs on the public, and have cowed to industry interest. There’s just concern and disappointment, because we felt like we had a good step forward in our state to recognizing value of our water and importance of regulation and oversight and it feels like we just took that back.”

Rosser acknowledged that the version of the bill that passed this weekend isn’t quite as drastic as the original version, which was introduced in February. As it was written then, the bill would have exempted storage tanks that stored oil or any other liquid associated with the oil or natural gas industry, and would also have exempted tanks that held less than 10,000 gallons. Under that bill, fewer than 1,000 storage tanks would be subject to the Aboveground Storage Tank Act’s regulations. The bill was edited after closed-door meetings with stakeholders, but still, Hansen said, the bill as it was passed represents a major change from current regulations.

“It’s a significant rollback from the existing law,” Hansen said. “If virtually every tank opts out, without more stringent requirements, then [the Aboveground Storage Tank Act] will have done nothing. However, if the 12,000 tanks are held to higher standards, then it will have done something.”

The bill in its original version was introduced after the state’s oil and gas industry complained that the Aboveground Storage Tank Act was over-burdensome to the industry. James McKinney, president of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia, said last August that he thought the act could “cause lost jobs” and “close businesses for us.” And earlier this year, West Virginia Oil and Gas Association Executive Director Corky DeMarco also said he he didn’t think there was much of a risk of tanks owned by the oil and gas industry polluting the state’s water.

“If you talk to people in the industry, they feel like SB 373 [the Storage Tank Act] overreached, included too many tanks, imposed an unreasonable burden on tank owners and operators, and that it had requirements for tanks that presented little threat to drinking water,” Hansen said.

Some lawmakers also voiced their disapproval of the bill.

“And so now, we can all be known for the West Virginia House that just loves our dirty water,” Del. Nancy Guthrie (D) said of the bill’s passage.

Katie Valentine is Deputy Editor for Climate Progress. Previously, she served as a Climate Reporter and Special Assistant for ThinkProgress, and interned with American Progress in the Energy department, doing research on international climate policy and contributing to Climate Progress. Katie graduated from the University of Georgia with a bachelor of arts in journalism and a minor in ecology. She's held internships at at Creative Loafing Atlanta and in UGA’s Office of Sustainability.