January 17, 2014

By: Paul J. Nyden

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said Friday they had agreed with Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., on a bill to protect people from chemical spills in their drinking water.

The legislation came a week after a Freedom Industries storage facility near Charleston leaked 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (Crude MCHM) into the Elk River, polluting water used by more than 300,000 area residents.

The leak caused major problems for families, schools and businesses. Freedom Industries filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Friday, permitting them to reorganize and continue doing business.

Manchin said he and Boxer would introduce the Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection Act when Congress returns later this month.

That bill would strengthen the ability of states to prevent chemical spills like the Jan. 9 leak that contaminated water in nine West Virginia counties.

The legislation includes measures designed to make sure industrial facilities are properly inspected by state officials and both the chemical industry and emergency response agencies are prepared for future chemical incidents or emergencies.

Its key principles include:

  • Requiring regular state inspections of above-ground chemical storage facilities.
  • Requiring industry to develop state-approved emergency response plans.
  • Allowing states to recoup costs from responding to emergencies.
  • Guaranteeing that drinking water systems have improved abilities to respond to emergencies.

Manchin said on Friday, “Today, nearly 150,000 West Virginians still cannot use their tap water, and many more are concerned about the long-term effects of this chemical spill.

“No West Virginian or American should have to go through something like this again,” he said. “We can work to improve the safety of Americans by ensuring that chemicals are properly managed, while also balancing the positive impact the chemical industry has made to our country.”

Boxer said, “This legislation protects children and families across the nation by providing the tools necessary to help prevent dangerous chemical spills that threaten their drinking water.”

Commenting on the bill that Manchin and Boxer will introduce, Rockefeller said, “The fact that there was a lack of regulations which allowed this particular storage facility to go uninspected for so many years is absurd.

“I’m encouraged we are taking these steps to bring some accountability to industry that will help protect West Virginia families and our state’s economy.”

Rockefeller also co-sponsored two bills Friday designed to prevent future chemical pollution from “non-hazardous” chemicals and to make polluters pay for problems they create.

Rockefeller co-sponsored two bills to amend current legislation that Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, introduced last year when a 233,000-gallon molasses spill occurred in Honolulu.

Molasses spilled into the ocean when a pipeline moving it to a ship tank burst. It depleted oxygen from ocean water, killing 26,000 fish and harming shellfish and coral reefs.

The Rockefeller-Schatz legislation would:

  • Force companies that spill materials that are dangerous but not officially classified as “hazardous” — like MCHM — to pay for cleanup costs under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980, commonly known as Superfund. Today, the government cannot hold polluters liable for Superfund cleanup costs unless the materials are deemed to be “hazardous.”
  • Raise the Superfund cap on the costs of cleanups from harmful spills from $2 million to $4 million — doubling the amount of Superfund money available.

Major parts of those funds go to states and government agencies that perform the cleanups.

Rockefeller said his co-sponsored “bill corrects a glaring hole in our law that leaves residents vulnerable to shouldering the cleanup costs associated with a non-hazardous chemical spill.”

Rockefeller said he is pursuing several avenues to help people who could fall victim to future spills, including requesting more funds for the federal Chemical Safety Board to study the causes of the Elk River leak and prevent similar leaks in the future. He is also “asking public health experts to examine the nature of this chemical and its long-term health effects.”

During the past week, Rockefeller asked the federal Chemical Safety Board to investigate causes of the accident and urged his Senate colleagues to boost funding for the CSB in upcoming budget legislation.

Rockefeller also wrote a letter to the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asking them to begin a major study about the long-term public health risks associated with MCHM.