West Virginia legislators scale back law after last year's chemical spill

More than a year after chemicals spilled into the drinking water for 300,000 people, state lawmakers have voted to peel back protections to prevent leaky tanks from threatening water supplies again.

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By a 78-21 tally Friday, the GOP-led House of Delegates supported pulling about 36,000 aboveground tanks out of a newly established state regulatory program. There was only one "no" vote in a similar Senate vote.

Proponents said the old law went too far and could hurt businesses. Opponents stressed the need for clean water, and said the law hasn't been in effect long enough to test its effects.

"And so now, we can all be known for the West Virginia House that just loves our dirty water," said Del. Nancy Guthrie, D-Kanawha.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's administration has also looked favorably upon scaling back the law.

Under the new bill, about 12,000 tanks within a certain distance of water supplies, containing 50,000 gallons or holding hazardous materials, would be held to the increased standards passed in last year's law.

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The oil and natural gas lobby was the most outspoken about toning down regulations.

"Now we found out, after the months that have passed, that we have jeopardized many people whose businesses or homes did not involve any risk at all," said Del. John Shott, R-Mercer.

In January 2014, lawmakers were in session when a Freedom Industries tank spilled coal-cleaning chemicals into the water supply for nine counties. Six ex-Freedom officials and the company now face federal charges.

After the spill, lawmakers quickly reacted with a bill requiring a slew of inspections, containment requirements and other safeguards for aboveground tanks. The legislation passed unanimously in both chambers.

Many delegates from Kanawha County, where the spill occurred, opposed scaling back the law.

Republican House Speaker Tim Armstead, who is in charge of deciding which bills are considered, voted no along with Del. Patrick Lane.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm tearing up, because I'm voting for my kids," said Lane, R-Kanawha.

GOP Del. Eric Nelson was the only Kanawha delegate to support the final bill.

Delegates accepted an amendment that would make inspections every three years instead of every five. The law currently requires them annually.