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House Judiciary public hearing on water quality rule draws 24 against DEP proposal, 8 in favor

MORGANTOWN – A controversial Department of Environmental Protection water pollution rule dealing with human health criteria is back before the Legislature and no less contentious than it was when it began its journey in 2018.

A virtual public hearing on the proposed rule drew 32 people to testify Monday morning, with 24 opposing it and eight supporting it.

House Judiciary held the hearing on HB 2389, which would authorize the DEP to put the rule into effect.

The water quality rule in question deals with waste discharge permits. The Department of Environmental Protection first took it up in 2018. It proposed 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 Rule Making Review in November 2018 directed DEP to remove the updated standards and keep the old ones.

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

That’s the proposal contained in HB 2389. Monday’s arguments were familiar, with lobbyists for the environmental community and some members of the general public opposing the rule and industry lobbyists supporting it.

David Lillard, a Jefferson County resident, said the current standards have been in place a long time, companies are complying and not finding them too burdensome, and no businesses are leaving because of them.

But, he said, green-minded 21st century businesses won’t want to come here, or tourists. “We’re rewriting our brand: ‘West Virginia: We do the minimum.’” HB 2389is a giveaway to corporate polluters.

Eric Engle, with the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, said, “We need clean, potable water for West Virginians. It is a human right.”

Angie Rosser, Rivers Coalition executive director, said if the Legislature approves the weakened standards, the burden to treat the dirtier water will fall to public water systems, which will pass the increased cost to customers.

Anastasya Tabb said, “I can’t fathom the recklessness of the DEP” in suggesting the EPA erred in updating its standards.

Speaking for the rule, Rebecca McPhail, exeuctive director of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, said a stakeholder review of the EPA methodologies raised questions. What the EPA proposes are just recommendations; EPA encourages states to develop their own state-specifi criteria, which is what DEP is attempting.

The association, she said, advocates for criteria based on the best science, whether that yields higher or lower standards. “House Bill 2389 is a solid step forward for West Virginia.”

Speaking for the state Chamber of Commerce, Joseph Unger said “A healthy environment and a healthy economy with good jobs … are not mutually exclusive.”

Paul Calamit, representing the West Virginia Municipal Water Quality Association, said the vast majority of states have not adopted most recent EPA criteria. There is concern that the science behind those criteria is speculative at best.

The Water Quality Association, he said, is willing to accept DEP’s proposal on the 24 standards.

Judiciary chair Moore Capito, R-Kanawha, said he expects the committee to take up the rule sometime this week. It doesn’t appear on Judiciary’s Tuesday agenda.

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