Coal Tattoo

Chemical tank rollbacks: How soon we forget

Coal Water Pollution

In this Jan. 13, 2014, photo, workers, left, inspect an area outside a retaining wall around storage tanks where a chemical leaked into the Elk River at Freedom Industries storage facility in Charleston, W.Va.  (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

 A year ago yesterday, this is what I posted on this blog:

It seems almost impossible to believe that West Virginia lawmakers have passed and sent to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin a decent piece of legislation that will do much to remedy the many inactions (see here, here and here) that played a role in the January chemical spill that contaminated the drinking water supply for 300,000 of us.

Somehow, lawmakers held off any effort to seriously undermine the great improvements that the House made to SB 373, and they even went back on Friday night and took out an ill-conceived amendment that even sponsor Delegate Justin Marcum, D-Mingo did not even understand. Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, certainly nailed it when he explained what happened this way:

I think Senate Bill 373 is an example of how the system is supposed to work.

 And here’s what I wrote in a Gazette story early this morning, after spending more than four hours listening to the House Judiciary Committee:

Legislation that dismantles large portions of the chemical tank safety bill passed after last year’s Freedom Industries leak appears headed for passage, following a narrow approval late Monday night by the House Judiciary Committee.

Committee members approved the bill (SB 423) by a 13-12 vote taken at about 11:30 p.m,, following the defeat of an amendment aimed at strengthening parts of the bill at the end of a more than four-hour meeting. That amendment failed by an identical margin.

“This bill is a rollback of all we accomplished last year,” said Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson.

So that’s where we are. It seems almost certain that this new bill will easily pass the House. And can anyone really imagine Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin — who never really had much of a taste for doing anything on this issue that industry lobbyists weren’t down with — not signing the bill?

And don’t let anybody try to fool you … this bill is a huge retreat from SB 373.  To know that, all you really need to understand is that it leaves tens of thousands of above-ground storage tanks out of the new regulatory program.  But remember: It also reduces the frequency of mandated Department of Environmental Protection inspections, eases the safety standards for the tanks it still covers, and blocks public access to key information about potential threats to public drinking water.

So how did this happen? Well, there’s a school of thought that this is just another result of the Republican takeover of both houses of the Legislature. And it’s obviously true that the Republican leadership is setting the agenda. But they’re also doing basically what they said they would: Getting government off the backs of business.

What’s really important here, if our state is to learn anything from this, is to look beyond that partisan explanation.  Of course, it’s true that the nine Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee — led by Delegates Tim Manchin, Stephen Skinner and Barbara Fleischauer —  stuck together and tried to make the bill better, and then voted against it when their amendment failed. But it’s also true that none of them formally tried to amend out the biggest changes that cut the largest numbers of tanks out of the regulatory system.

Let’s not forget that some of the Democratic party’s leaders in the Legislature were making noise last year about gutting SB 373, and at least one of them — former Speaker Tim Miley — co-sponsored a bill that would have weakened the chemical tank safety system in our state even more than the one that appears headed for passage. And in the state Senate, the Democrats were right there supporting this bill when the Republican leadership called the vote. One of those Senators, Marshall County Democrat Jeff Kessler, explained on Twitter that environmental group lobbyists hadn’t told him they were against this version of the bill — as if the right way to decide your vote is whether or not a lobbyist for any group tells you, as opposed to, you know, reading the bill.

But honest, it’s not that any of these elected officials are bad people. It’s not that they don’t care about whether we have clean water to drink. What it is about is not thinking about or seeing a big picture, in which things are connected. Whether your oil and gas tank is a mile upstream from a drinking water intake or 10 miles upstream from one, we all live downstream.

I’m reminded today of the House floor debate a while back on the coal industry’s big “Jobs and Safety” legislation. There was Delegate Miley and Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, wanting to separate the parts of that bill that had to do with weakening miner safety regulations from those that had to do with lessening environmental protection. Delegate Caputo explained many delegates wanted to support miner safety, while also supporting weaker environmental protection:

We all want to vote for these environmental provisions. We want to relax those rules as much as we can.

Now, I don’t think Delegate Caputo really wants to relax environmental rules as much as possible. Maybe I’m wrong. But this just seems to be the example that’s sticking in my mind about how far this anti-EPA, anti-Obama, anti-regulation stuff has gone — how out of control the political discussion is right now in West Virginia, and how hard it is for even normally thoughtful legislators like Delegate Caputo to connect all of the dots that needed connected if West Virginia is going to move forward.

The forces that work to divide West Virginians have done a great job. Undoing the damage — not necessarily to the state Code — but to our political system … it’s going to take a lot of hard work.