West Virginia Water Crisis Spawned Safeguards, But Some Tanks Called Unfit

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By Bebe Raupe

Jan. 7 — In the year following West Virginia's drinking water emergency, the state has become a national model for aboveground storage tank regulation, yet it still is home to 1,100 chemical containers deemed “unfit for service,” according to environmentalists.

As the Elk River chemical leak's anniversary approaches, citizen advocates need to ensure that regulatory safeguards adopted in its wake aren't rolled back in the future, members of the West Virginia Safe Water Roundtable said during a Jan. 7 telephone conference.

On Jan. 9, 2014, state inspectors discovered that a ruptured aboveground storage tank had released about 10,000 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol into the Elk River, upstream from a West Virginia American Water intake portal, prompting a “do not use” order for 300,000 people in nine counties.

Within days, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) proposed legislation to give the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection “tools” to prevent another similar incident by establishing a chemical storage tank regulatory program.

The measure (S.B. 373) passed the legislature last March and was signed by the governor April 1.

Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, one of 28 organizations forming the roundtable, told reporters the water crisis served as “a wakeup call” for state officials who have traditionally let business interests hold sway over environmental concerns.

Cites Lax Regulation

“Decades of politics set us up for catastrophe,” with coal industry influence leading to West Virginia's lax regulatory climate, Rosser said, but things changed after the crisis.

When the governor was initially drafting the tank bill, he only gathered stakeholder input from business leaders, she said, leading to citizen outrage. Tomblin then sought environmental groups' counsel for the very first time, Rosser said, and during the legislative process, when lawmakers added broad industry exemptions to the program, he pushed back and exemptions were removed from the enacted bill.

The water emergency also had a ripple effect across the country, Rosser said, with many states realizing that they, just like West Virginia, were minimally aware of the environmental threat posed by aging, undocumented aboveground storage tanks.

Following West Virginia's example of establishing a storage tank database, some states have begun their own inventories, she said.

State Knows About Dangers 

While learning so many of West Virginia's storage tanks are “unfit for service” is discomforting, at least the state now knows these possible dangers exist and is taking steps to resolve them, Rosser said.

However, she said, citizens need to be aware that coal and drilling interests may attempt to weaken the act when the state Legislature convenes Jan. 14, having already said that the law overreaches and that compliance is too expensive.

The state's Water Resource Protection Act requires any aboveground storage tank holding 1,320 gallons of liquid that is 90 percent aboveground and has been in a fixed location for more than 60 days to be registered with the state and inspected.

Under the law, all aboveground storage tanks had to register by Oct. 1, 2014, and those within “zones of critical concern” had to be professionally inspected and certified by Jan. 1, 2015.

1,106 Tanks ‘Not Fit for Service.'

As of Jan. 6, there were 1,106 tanks deemed “not fit for service,” according to the submitted inspection certifications, WVDEP spokeswoman Kelley Gillenwater told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 7.

Of those, 924 are still in use, Gillenwater said, and among those still in service, the department is focusing on 80 within “zones of critical concern”—close to public water sources or wellhead protection areas —or that hold hazardous materials, as defined by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act.

Owners of these tanks have been given 15 days to provide the department with a list of all deficiencies, a plan for abating them and a plan to remove the tank from service until it's made fit for service, she said.

Altogether, the department has received registrations for 49,149 aboveground storage tanks and inspections for 29,432, Gillenwater said.

In a related development, the WVDEP is accepting public comment on the aboveground storage tank program's implementing rule (47 CSR 63) until Jan. 21, Gillenwater said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bebe Raupe in Cincinnati at braupe@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

The proposed rule is available at http://www.dep.wv.gov/WWE/abovegroundstoragetanks/Documents/DRAFTASTRuleupdated121614.pdf.