Sustained Outrage

What happened to the Chemical Safety Board plan?

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Photo by Tom Hindman, Charleston Daily Mail, via Associated Press

UPDATED: Read to the end for important update, with amendment planned to put CSB language back in the bill.

In the early days of West Virginia’s ongoing water crisis, one of the stories we focused on at the Gazette was this:

Three years ago this month, a team of federal experts urged the state of West Virginia to help the Kanawha Valley create a new program to prevent hazardous chemical accidents.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board recommended the step after its extensive investigation of the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two workers at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute.

Since then, the proposal has gone nowhere. The state Department of Health and Human Resources hasn’t stepped in to provide the legal authority the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department needs to start such a program. And Kanawha County officials never funded the plan, and seldom mention that the CSB recommendation was even made.

Now, with more than 300,000 residents across the Kanawha Valley without usable water following a chemical accident at Freedom Industries on the Elk River, some local officials say it’s time for action.

“We’d had their recommendation on the books for several years now,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the local health department. “This gives us another opportunity to look at what they recommended.”

As Dr. Gupta predicted, the Freedom Industries chemical spill — contaminating water supplies for 300,000 West Virginians — provided state and local leaders another chance to focus on the CSB’s recommendation. And there’s been some talk about it, including some discussion that Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, would introduce a bill to require implementation of the board’s proposal.

But it appears that things are really going nowhere with this issue. That’s despite the fact that during its marathon meeting Sunday night and into Monday morning, the House Judiciary Committee appeared to have approved an amendment that included language regarding the CSB’s recommendations. The Daily Mail’s Dave Boucher mentioned this action in a blog post describing the committee’s maneuvering on the bill:

The committee created the Public Water System Study Commission, an entity that will consider the reports that come our in connection the leak and whether additional changes to the law are needed. The commission is also supposed to consider recommendations from the Chemical Safety Board’s other trips to West Virginia.

When you look at the version of SB 373 that moved out of Judiciary, though, the section about the water system study commission — W.Va. Code 22-31-12 — the Chemical Safety Board isn’t mentioned. Of course, that means that the language wasn’t considered by the House Finance Committee, and isn’t in the version of the bill that is up for debate today on the House floor.

I’ve posted here a .pdf file containing all of the amendments considered by the Judiciary Committee on Sunday and Monday. If you scroll to page 24, you’ll see the amendment from Delegate Mark Hunt, D-Kanawha, proposing the water system study commission. You can see at the bottom of the page that this amendment was adopted, right? But there’s nothing listed there about the Chemical Safety Board, or about this new commission considering the CSB’s recommendations.

But, that .pdf file is missing a page, which I’ve posted here.  This appears to be a pretty simple clerical error, the type that can easily happen when committee staff — with an ice storm heading into the city — are being worked into the early morning hours on a complicated and emotional piece of legislation. The missing page was apparently written on the back of the first page of Delegate Hunt’s amendment. Here’s what that second page looks like:

The highlighted note in the margin says, “Consideration of Bayer Report.” That’s what never made it into the list of duties for the new water system study commission.

It’s not clear at this point what — if anything — lawmakers will do about this apparent error. But so far, there’s nothing about the Chemical Safety Board listed among the floor amendments scheduled to be considered today by the House of Delegates.

UPDATED: The House Judiciary Chairman, Tim Manchin, will submit this floor amendment to put the Chemical Safety Board language back into the bill. Stacey Ruckle, a spokeswoman for the House leadership, said that the language was inadvertently left out of the bill.