Less than a year after signing legislation with new safeguards in response to a 2014 chemical spill that prompted a tap-water ban for 300,000 people, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed a bill Friday to trim away some of those protections against leaky aboveground tanks.
With the Democrat's approval, about 36,000 tanks won't be subject to a state regulatory program established specifically because of the last year's spill. The majority of them hold oil, water and brine for natural gas drilling operations.
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Proponents of the rollback said the old law went too far and could hurt businesses. Opponents said West Virginians cannot live without clean water, and said the law hasn't been in effect long enough to test its effects.
Tomblin said the law has provided valuable information, including an inventory of 48,000 tanks, but the focus should be on tanks that threaten water supplies and contain hazardous chemicals.
"The changes in this bill represent reasonable steps to ensure protection of our drinking water resources by focusing on the tanks that pose the most risk," Tomblin said in a news release Friday.
Under the new bill, about 12,000 tanks within a certain distance of water supplies, containing at least 50,000 gallons or holding hazardous materials, will be held to the increased standards passed in last year's law. Inspections will be every three years for tanks posing the biggest threats, instead of annually under current law.
The bill provides protections for tanks within 1,000 feet of a main waterway used for drinking water, and 500 feet from a tributary. It accounts for facilities upstream where a spill would take 10 hours or less to reach a public water intake.
The oil and natural gas industry, which uses the biggest cluster of tanks in the state, was the most outspoken about toning down regulations. The coal and chemical manufacturing industries also thought the law was an overreach.
In January 2014, lawmakers were in session when a Freedom Industries tank spilled coal-cleaning chemicals into the water supply for nine counties. Residents were banned from using their tap water for up to 10 days.
Six ex-Freedom officials and the company now face federal charges in the spill.
Afterward, lawmakers reacted with a bill requiring a slew of inspections, containment requirements and other safeguards for aboveground tanks. The legislation passed unanimously in both chambers.
Environmental groups have opposed reducing those wide-spanning protections, saying all waterways should be protected.
While taking a statewide inventory, the Department of Environmental Protection found that more than 1,500 tanks were deemed not fit for service by engineers, or others who completed inspections.
The department is trying to get more information about 100 of the tanks that contain hazardous materials, are near a water supply, or both. DEP still isn't sure why the tanks were deemed unfit for service.