Water is life, except in WV

Monday was World Water Day — a day recognized by 20 global water and related organizations to raise awareness of water crises globally and to recognize and celebrate what water means to us all.

In West Virginia, however, the majority party in our Legislature is acting like water is expendable and that extraction industry profits are far more important.

West Virginia has 46 named rivers, not counting major tributaries, branches, forks, creeks, drains, licks, runs, etc. These were formed by glaciers and should be some of the most pristine, clean, safe and wild bodies of water in the world.

Instead, we have sacrificed our most precious resource to the whims of industries that offer mostly temporary jobs and take our resource wealth out of state, then refuse to clean up their messes. Taxpayers, ratepayers, property owners and consumers always seem to get stuck with the bill after every industry boom and bust.

Two bills that have passed out of the House of Delegates and are now assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee are set to make these problems exponentially worse. House Bill 2598 would allow tanks that store 210 barrels (that’s nearly 9,000 gallons) or less of oil and gas waste in zones of critical concern for our drinking water intakes to go without regulation under the Aboveground Storage Tank Act.

That means that between 800 to 900 tanks near our surface drinking water intakes in West Virginia would become exempt from registration and certification and submittal of spill-prevention response plans under the ASTA. This is not just brine water being stored in these tanks; this also is “other fluids produced in connection with hydrocarbon production activities.”

To quote from the seventh edition of the Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking, a fully referenced 475-page compilation provided by Concerned Health Professionals of New York and Physicians for Social Responsibility: “The 2005 Energy Policy Act exempts hydraulic fracturing from key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act. As a result, fracking chemicals have been protected from public scrutiny as ‘trade secrets.’ Companies are not compelled to fully disclose the identity of chemicals used in fracking fluid, their quantities, or their fate once injected underground. Of the more than 1,000 chemicals that are confirmed ingredients in fracking fluid, an estimated 100 are known endocrine disruptors, acting as reproductive and developmental toxicants, and at least 48 are potentially carcinogenic.”

Adding to this mix are heavy metals, radioactive elements, brine, and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which occur naturally in deep geological formations and can be carried up from the fracking zone with the flowback fluid. A 2020 study identified 1,198 chemicals in oil and gas wastewater, of which 86% lack toxicity data sufficient to complete a risk assessment.”

One of the delegates in my three-delegate district, John Kelly, R-Wood, was the lead sponsor of this legislation. We live in Parkersburg, a community made famous in the documentary “The Devil We Know,” which was featured on Netflix, and the major motion picture, “Dark Waters,” for contamination in our water from the production of the DuPont/Chemours product Teflon and related nonstick products. Haven’t we suffered enough?

Another piece of legislation, House Bill 2382, a West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection rules bundle, includes revisions to water quality standards that would allow for more toxins in our water.

In 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommended 94 water quality standards updates for human health criteria. Later, the DEP decided that West Virginia should pursue 56 of those updates.

By the time these recommendations got to the Legislature and industry stepped in with its lobbyists, the can got kicked down the road and now this legislation is set to update only 24 of the standards and weaken 13 of them. One of those weakened is for a contaminant known as PCE (Tetrachloroethylene) that massively contaminated the water supply in Paden City.

Industry argues that science is on its side, but why would we ever want to weaken water protections? These bills are not safe, they’re not smart, and they’ll just worsen the exodus from our state.

Eric Engle is chairman of Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action, a board member for the West Virginia Rivers Coalition and co-chairman of Sierra Club of West Virginia’s executive committee.