West Virginia panel: Water supply protection plans need funding in law against chemical spills

There's almost no money reserved to help utilities pay for plans to protect water supplies under a new law, a West Virginia panel said Monday.

At a Public Water Supply System Study Commission meeting, board member Amy Swann warned of possible rate increases if utilities foot the bill. Swann is the West Virginia Rural Water Association executive director.

She said it could cost utilities $80,000 to $100,000 per protection plan. The documents will examine the feasibility of maintaining back-up water supplies or secondary water intakes, and will determine the viability of switching to alternate water sources during spills. It will also include a variety of emergency preparation and response plans.

The state Bureau for Public Health received $1.5 million in one-time money for the new law. About $500,000 to $540,000 is expected to be available to help utilities with their protection plans. The rest will go toward staffing, online reporting software and contractor services, said state Department of Health and Human Resources spokeswoman Allison Adler.

"It appears, as in everything else, it all comes down to one thing: the dollar," said Jimmy Gianato, state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management director and the commission's chairman.

State Del. Nancy Guthrie, a Kanawha County Democrat, suggested a legislative fix to extend the July 2016 deadline to submit protection plans. She said she preferred phasing in the plan requirements if it meant getting experts involved.

"I would much rather have a peer-reviewed inventory by some respected engineers in this field that, perhaps, can serve as a template for other states, and for maybe even the country, than to go off half-cocked again," Guthrie said.

The plans are required in a law to protect water supplies. It reacts to a January chemical spill that tainted 300,000 people's water for days.

The law also sets up a new regulatory program for aboveground storage tanks. A tank at Freedom Industries in Charleston leaked coal-cleaning chemicals into the Elk River in January, contaminating drinking water for nine counties.