CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Dozens of skeptical citizens on Monday urged West Virginia officials to create meaningful regulatory and enforcement changes following a chemical spill that left 300,000 people without drinking water for days.
At a two-hour hearing in the House of Delegates chamber, 52 West Virginians testified about ways they think lawmakers should help prevent future spills. The state Senate already passed a bill with new rules for aboveground storage tanks and public water systems.
Water-weary citizens, however, want protections extended even more as the legislation moves through the House.
"This is not just about one leaky tank," said Angie Rosser of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. "This is about redeeming our state."
From fishing advocates to religious leaders, the testimony also underscored public distrust of the nine-county region's water. Officials declared it safe to drink weeks ago, but advised pregnant women not to drink it.
Out of 288 people surveyed at a town hall last week, 1 percent said they were drinking the water and 2 percent said they were cooking with it.
"If water can't be proven safe my family will have to leave," said Rebecca Roth, an expectant mother with a 20-month-old child. "I've put down considerable roots here, but roots need water."
On Jan. 9, a tank leak at Freedom Industries contaminated the water supply, leaving 300,000 people without drinking water from four up to 10 days. The event sparked outcry from state officials for more regulations.
Some environmental groups have pointed out that the company had a state permit, and had visits from West Virginia environmental officials between 2002 and 2012 with no violations.
Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, has offered a response by proposing registrations and annual inspections for most surface-level tanks storing fluids. Senate Bill 373 also would require closer monitoring of tanks within 25 miles upstream of a water supply source.
Water systems and storage facilities would need to get state approval for more in-depth emergency plans.
The bill also spells out about 20 exemptions. Most pertain to containers that Unger said are already under ample regulation.
Some pertain to farms, septic tanks, water storage, propane and personal-sized tanks, stormwater and wastewater systems and liquids that turn to gas when exposed.
Kanawha County Health Officer Rahul Gupta told a House health committee Monday to take a broader approach.
Gupta suggested a health-monitoring program for a decade or more, since so little is known about long-term effects of the crude MCHM and stripped PPH that entered the water supply.
He proposed that state health and environmental agencies include county health officials in their disaster-prevention efforts. He also advocated for a larger hazardous-chemical prevention program with multiple governments involved, which the federal Chemical Safety Board suggested years ago.