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DEP public hearing draws criticism for plan to weaken some water pollution measures, delay action on others

MORGANTOWN — The state Department of Environmental Protection drew criticism for many considered a weak stance on rules governing water quality during a Tuesday evening public hearing.

“I think you’re abdicating your responsibility,” Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, told the DEP during his turn at the mic.

With COVID-19 restrictions in place, DEP held a virtual online hearing. More than 70 people “attended” remotely. Only 18 spoke, but all opposed DEP’s overall proposal.

The water quality rule in question deals with waste discharge permits. DEP first took it up in 2018 during its triennial review. It proposed that July to update the 60 human health water quality parameters within the rule for such pollutants as aluminum, arsenic, copper, barium and manganese — to conform to the most recent Environmental Protection Agency recommendations.

(EPA actually sets parameters for 94 pollutants but DEP has regulated only 60 of them).

Some of the parameters were more stringent than existing parameters and some were less stringent, based on new data since the previous EPA recommendations made in the 1980s and 1990s.

At the behest of industry, which wanted more time to evaluate the standards and develop more state- and site-specific measures for some of the 60, the joint Rule Making Review Committee in November 2018 directed DEP to remove the updated standards and keep the old ones.

Then, during the 2019 legislative session, one committee put the EPA/DEP-recommended standards back in, only to have Senate Judiciary take them back out in favor of a compromise delay maneuver. The measure that passed in SB 163 that year directed DEP to propose updates no later than April 1 this year for consideration during the 2021 session, following a public comment period, which just ended.

In 2019, DEP defended, unsuccessfully, adopting the newest parameters. But it backed off that position for this proposed rule. Instead, it proposes to set standards for only 24 pollutants – making 13 of them less stringent than current standards – and put the rest into the hands of a work group that will meet monthly from June through May 2021 to draw up human health criteria proposals for the Legislature’s 2022 session.

At the hearing, Autumn Crowe, staff scientist for the West Virginian Rivers Coalition, praised DEP for one element of the proposal: raising its estimated fish consumption rate, which helps determine the leel of toxins people might ingest in their food.

DEP has estimated West Virginia fish consumption at 9.9 grams per day, less than half the national average of 22.2 grams. For comparison, 9.9 grams is about a third of an ounce. At that rate, it would take about 12 days to eat a McDonald’s fish filet, about 18 days to finish a can of tuna.

The proposed rule sets the level at the national average, 22.2 grams.

But the rest, she said, doesn’t go nearly far enough to protect West Virginians. She cited a number of problems detailed in a 10-page letter to DEP endorsed by 18 citizen groups.

For one, she said, it’s pointless to weaken certain criteria that industry is already meeting; that just opens the door to dumping more pollutants.

Also, she said, weakening criteria shifts the burden of cleaning the water from the polluters to the water utilities, which could create new water treatment expenses that will fall on the customers.

Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, said the vast majority of people he represents don’t think DEP is doing enough to protect their drinking water. DEP particularly doesn’t take into account that much of his area sits atop karst – a topography composed of soluble limestone with caves, underground streams and sinkholes.

DEP’s proposed rule, he said, endangers the water supply for about 35,000 people who live atop the karst.

Hansen helped negotiate the compromise in 2019 to allow time for industry to have some input and develop the best science-based rules. “It was a hard-fought compromise,” he said.

He was among several who said the proposed rule fails to meet the directives of the Legislature in SB 163, which says DEP “shall propose updates to the numeric human health criteria … to be presented to the 2021 legislative session.”

He agreed with Crowe that there’s no guarantee the work group will reach any agreement – the coalition letter cites another DEP work group that failed to perfrom its task – and if it would, there’s no telling when the Legislature might adopt the recommendations.

“It’s time for action,” he said.

Michael McCawley, a professor in WVU’s School of Public Health, talked about the relative poor health of West Virginians compared to the residents of other states and about keeping carcinogens out of drinking water.

Increasing levels of pollutants for people suffering from chronic disease isn’t good for the people or the economy, he said. Industry may want weaker standards to draw new jobs, but many don’t want to see more jobs created at the expense of people’s health.

Linda Frame, president of the West Virginia Environmental Council, was one of several who said that West Virginia’s clean outdoor environment draws tourists and new residents. The rule’s proposed changes may be crafted to businesses, but businesses have humans who want clean water.

Along the same line, WVU student Abigail Riggs said she’s the only person in her circle who plans to stay in West Virginia. Clean drinking water would keep more young people in the state. “It’s sad so many of us want to leave.”

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