Citizens urge DEP to abandon key water rule changes

By Ken Ward Jr.

Staff writer, Gazette-Mail

West Virginia citizens turned out Tuesday night to urge the state Department of Environmental Protection to abandon a proposed rule thatcould allow more cancer-causing chemicals to be discharged into river and streams and make it easier for industry to have drinking water protections removed from some waterways.

About 35 people attended a DEP Division of Water and Waste Management public hearing to speak out against key changes to the state's water quality standards.

Leaders of several statewide and local environmental groups - including the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, the state chapter of the Sierra Club and Coal River Mountain Watch - voiced their opposition to the DEP proposals. The West Virginia Council of Churches also spoke against the agency's recommended changes.

"We cannot identify any circumstances under which adding any more carcinogens to West Virginia's water is a good idea," said Jim Kotcon, a West Virginia University scientist and longtime leader of the state Sierra Club. "It just doesn't make any sense."

Junior Walk, an activist with Coal River Mountain Watch, said, "West Virginia is sick enough. We've got enough cancer."

The Rev. Jeff Allen of the Council of Churches said that his organization urges DEP to maintain its current standards and "supports the highest level of protection possible" for West Virginia's drinking water supplies.

Karan Ireland, a Charleston city councilwoman and water protection activist, said she and other city officials constantly are trying to market the area to young people and that relaxing water quality protections doesn't help make Charleston and surrounding communities more attractive.

"Are we going to do more to protect our water, or are we going to do less?" Ireland asked DEP officials. "It feels like we're doing less."

One change being considered by DEP would somewhat streamline the process of having drinking water protections removed for waterways, eliminating the need for such changes to get legislative approval on a case-by-case basis.

Another proposal would move calculate water pollution limits for cancer-causing chemicals using an average flow figure - called the "harmonic mean" - rather than the state's current practice of using a low-flow figure, a change that would allow more carcinogens to be discharged.

DEP Secretary Randy Huffman has said that the changes are reasonable, will not reduce public health protections and are consistent with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidance and legislative mandates that his agency re-examine the water quality standards at issue.

The DEP proposals come on the heels of Huffman's successful efforts, working with state environmental groups, to add drinking water protections for parts of the Kanawha River in downtown Charleston following the contamination of the region's Elk River drinking water supply by the January 2014 Freedom Industries chemical spill.

About a dozen people spoke at Tuesday's public hearing, and none of them spoke in favor of the DEP proposals on cancer-causing chemicals or drinking water protections.

One industry consultant attended part of the hearing but did not speak. A local political consultant and lobbyist also attended but, likewise, didn't speak.

Some industry groups likely submitted written comments prior to Tuesday night's hearing, but DEP officials declined to provide copies of any of the written comments until they had compiled them all after the hearing.

At least two industry groups, the West Virginia Manufacturers Association and the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, had previously submitted written comments during an earlier public input period, urging DEP to adopt the change related to cancer-causing chemicals and to make changes in the way drinking water protections can be removed from streams.

Industry groups argue the state's use of the low-flow figures for carcinogens is contrary to EPA's recommendations, and that going to the Legislature for every change in drinking water protections is too cumbersome.

Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, praised DEP for a third change that's aimed at improving the way the state measures bacteria pollution in streams. But Rosser also said that DEP needs more money and staff for more frequent and widespread monitoring, to take full advantage of that change in an effort to deal with the state's sewage pollution of rivers and streams.

"We need to know more about where the bacteria hot spots are before we can begin to tackle this problem," Rosser said.

But Rosser also criticized DEP for the drinking water rule change and for the proposal to move to using average stream flows for carcinogens.

"I have not heard the scenario yet where a business didn't move to West Virginia because we are too protective of our drinking water," Rosser said. Autumn Bryson, the Rivers Coalition's program director, noted that the proposal to use harmonic mean flow dates back many years, but that DEP still hasn't articulated any sort of detailed explanation of how the change would really impact allowable cancer-causing discharges.

"I don't know why we're going back over the same thing if we don't have the science to base it on," Bryson said.

Phil Price, a retired Union Carbide chemist, agreed that there isn't enough evidence to explain the potential impacts of what DEP is proposing.

"There is only spot data for a few streams and a few chemicals," Price said. Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazettemail.com

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