Can the Environment Survive the West Virginia Legislature? Week 1.

Think of the period between January 12 and March 12 as hunting season.  The prey?  West Virginia’s precious environment.  The hunters?  All those willing to undervalue and sacrifice the environment for a few extra dollars here or there.  There are a lot of hunters in West Virginia, folks, and they were out in Charleston during the first week of the legislative session!

Their first target is the Aboveground Storage Tank Act.  Yes, this issue is back.  To protect a few “struggling” gas well operators who find the ASTA too costly to comply with, lobbyists have made a run at weakening the law for three years in a row.  But this year’s effort is special. The bill is HB 4083.

Recall that a leaking aboveground tank on the Elk River polluted Kanawha County drinking water for 300,000 people in 2014. The resulting ASTA requires registration, inspection, leak prevention, and monitoring of most tanks in a “zone of critical concern,” defined as the area along a stream just above a drinking water intake.

There are several proposed changes.  Industry wants to exclude from the definition of “aboveground storage tank” the valve where the flow of fluids into or out of a tank may be shut off manually. Doing that would remove one of the most likely points of failure in a tank system from coverage by the Act.

In the current version of the law, tanks holding 210 barrels or less of brine or other fluids produced in connection with oil or gas drilling are exempt from the Act, unless they are in the zone of critical concern.  Industry wants to remove this proviso. If it is removed, any small tank just above a drinking water intake, even if it contains fracking waste, would be unregulated. There are close to a thousand of these small tanks in the state that would escape regulation.

Wait just a minute! This is serious. On whose behalf is industry willing to sacrifice our drinking water? On behalf of undercapitalized, poorly managed or incompetent gas operators who can’t even make enough in this booming gas economy to pay for compliance.  Industry doesn’t come armed with facts on operator bankruptcies or try to show that compliance with the Act is onerous.  Instead, whatever their lobbyists say to our legislators is magically cloaked in a ready-made presumption of legitimacy. The hunters are powerful people.

This insanity has to stop. If these few nameless “struggling” operators even exist, their economic survival surely isn’t as important as preserving pure drinking water in the state.  If they are struggling, there is a larger reason. Let them go – businesses fail and are replaced by new ones all the time. Perhaps the good judgment we crave on the part of our legislators will prevail, as it did a year ago.