News Feature | April 10, 2014

Water Utilities A Focal Point In West Virginia 'Spill Bill'

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome

Governor Tomblin signs the Water Resources Protection Act.

Water utility operations are a focal point in a new West Virginia law aimed at protecting the water supply.

The crackdown comes on the heels of a January chemical spill that left 300,000 residents without access to safe drinking water for several days, revealing stark vulnerabilities in the state's water system. 

In the months following the event, critics noted policy and infrastructural weaknesses that enabled the disaster. A range of voices said new laws were long overdue.

At last, this month, a measure was cleared. 

"After weeks of study and debate in the Legislature, West Virginia finally has a new law that regulates aboveground chemical storage tanks and requires a study of the long-term health effects of the Jan. 9 Elk River spill," the Sunday Gazette-Mail reported.  

New water utility requirements are a centerpiece in the so-called "spill bill," which Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed on April 1.

"State Department of Health and Human Resources (DDHR) Secretary Karen Bowling said the most important section of the new state law dealing with water is the requirement that all water utilities have a source water protection plan," MetroNews reported.  

“In the past this has just been a voluntary plan (for water utilities). They’ll be developing plans with our input to make sure we have a process in place for an emergency,” Bowling said in the report. 

Utilities will now be required to release information on "how they obtain their water, the possible risk factors for that water, including above ground storage facilities in the area of critical concern. The companies then have to come up with an emergency procedure in case there’s contamination," the report said. 

“Every water utility is going to be a little bit different in terms of how they do these assessments,” Bowling said. “It’s not just one plan that will go out but plans that are based on the geographic area and the different sources and how they obtain their water.”

July 2016 is the deadline for the release of these plans. 

The law aims to strengthening public confidence in tap water. “Our job in public health is really about protecting the health and well-being of our citizens and this gives us a mechanism to help us do that,” Bowling said in the report. 

Tomblin said the spill shone a light on water problems in his state. “The Elk River chemical spill has made us all – in our communities and across our nation – take a closer look at our infrastructure, especially in areas of critical concern around our waterways,” he said in a statement. “I applaud the hard work of our Legislature on the development of this bill.  Together, we passed this very important piece of legislation with all West Virginians in mind.”

For more on government oversight, check out Water Online's Regulations and Legislation Solution Center

Photo courtesy of the governor's office.

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