More than two-thirds of the chemical storage tanks covered by a safety law passed after the Freedom Industries spill into the Elk River would be exempt from that law, under a bill now moving through the West Virginia House of Delegates, according to the Charleston Gazette/Mail.|
The legislation would exclude 29,000 tanks owned and operated by the oil and gas industry from West Virginia's Aboveground Storage Tank Act, according to a preliminary analysis by the state Department of Environmental Protection. That's 69 percent of the 42,000 tanks that must be registered with the DEP under the law, passed by the Legislature in the wake of the January 2014 spill that contaminated drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people across the Kanawha Valley and surrounding communities.
House Bill 2811 was introduced days ago and was approved Thursday afternoon by the House Committee on Energy, with little debate and by a unanimous voice vote.
It now goes to the House Judiciary Committee.
Supporters say the bill aims to exempt from the law only certain types of smaller tanks that are not located near drinking water intakes.
Gov. Jim Justice has expressed support for giving the natural gas industry relief from the chemical tank law.
The West Virginia Environmental Council called the legislation "a new attack" on the chemical tank safety bill that would "undercut the protections" of that law, which already was significantly scaled back and has been the subject of repeated efforts by oil and gas operators, and by some other industries, looking for what are practically wholesale exemptions.
Under the bill, a new exemption would apply to tanks with a capacity of 210 barrels, or about 8,820 gallons, that contain "brine or water or other fluids produced in connection with hydrocarbon production activities," if those tanks are not located in a "zone of critical concern," an area that is estimated to be about five hours upstream from a drinking water intake.
Larger natural gas industry tanks and those located within zones of critical concern near drinking water intakes still would be covered by the law.
"It certainly does not reduce the level of regulation on tanks inside the zone of critical concern," said Charlie Burd, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association.
The bill's lead sponsor, Judiciary Vice Chairman Roger Hanshaw, said a goal of the legislation is to remove from the DEP the burden of regulating gas industry tanks that are not located where they present a threat to drinking water supplies.
"We have an agency that is underfunded, that can't do all the things it needs to do. This would let them spend their time on things that pose problems instead of ... things that aren't a problem," said Hanshaw, a Clay County Republican who holds a doctorate in chemistry and, as an attorney with the Charleston firm Bowles Rice, and sometimes represents the West Virginia Independent Oil and Gas Association and the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association.
The vast majority of the tanks that would be exempted under the bill, though, do not actually fall within a section of the current storage tank law that contains any specific safety requirements or mandated inspections, according to the DEP.
After the Freedom spill, lawmakers passed a landmark and very strong chemical storage tank law. The law was much broader in scope than then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin had proposed and was approved unanimously, despite numerous efforts by various industry lobbyists and some lawmakers to weaken its provisions. A year later, lawmakers scaled back the number and types of tanks covered by the law, but refused a natural gas industry effort to get a wholesale exemption.