Energy, Environment, Latest News, West Virginia Legislature

House OKs bill lifting nuclear power ban, will go to governor; Senate OKs long-debated DEP rule regarding drinking water contamination

MORGANTOWN — The House of Delegates passed the bill to repeal the state’s limited ban on nuclear power, and it will head to the governor’s office.

The Senate approved a Department of Environmental Protection rule regarding human health criteria for wastewater — a rule that has generated debate and readjustment for several years. That rule heads to the House for further debate.

SB 4 repeals the two sections of state code imposing the ban on nuclear plant construction.

Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, once again offered partial support but voted against it. “I’m glad that we’re discussing nuclear; this is a big issue,” he said. So are other sources of power being discussed during the session. “These are the types of discussion that are really essential for us to find ways to diversify our economy and bring jobs to West Virginia, even as we address climate change.

The bill will aid companies with green energy goals targeting the state for siting, he said, saying people are open to new ideas. And the best sites for the new-style nuclear plants are current coal plants, if they should shut down.

However, he said, “I’m not convinced that a straight repeal of the ban is the right approach.” He has an alternative bill, HB 4305, that offers ratepayer protections, options for a coal plant operator to refinance, provisions to steer new plants to coal plant sites, and other factors.

In any case, he said, it will be a decade before any nuclear plant could open. “While we move in that direction, let’s not forget that there are proven renewable energy technologies that we could build out today.”

Delegate Tony Payner, R-Wyoming, said he’s a pro-coal guy. “Nuclear is never a problem until it is, then it’s a big problem. … I don’t want to go down that road.”

Several speaking for and against the bill mentioned the problem of waste disposal and other potential dangers. Delegate Geoff Foster, R-Putnam, mentioned that parts of West Virginia are already included in a radiological emergency preparedness plan because they sit within 50 miles of the Beaver Valley nuclear plant in Pennsylvania.

Government Organization chair Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, said there are many questions to answer and issues to research: taxation, industry concerns, becoming a Nuclear Regulatory Commission partner, waste disposal, site selection and preparation, and community engagement.

“To not do this today because we haven’t figured that all the way out — it’s going to take us years for us to figure that out.” The bill is just about the willingness to talk about it. “It builds nothing, it spends nothing.”

The vote was 76-16. Support and opposition came from both sides of the aisle. Locally, Hansen and Delegates Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia, and Amy Summers, R-Taylor, voted against it; all others voted for it. Delegates Barbara Evans Fleischauer and John Williams, both D-Monongalia, were absent.

DEP water rule

SB 279 was a DEP rules bundle that included the rule concerning human health criteria for 32 contaminants in wastewater discharges.

The rule is derived from a 2015 EPA update of its recommendations of 56 contaminants that DEP regulates. It was originally, with what was then 60 contaminants, up for passage in 2019, but industry interests objected to some of the more-stringent standards for various reasons — including that some parameters are unmeasurable.

After long debate, DEP settled on a halfway measure during the 2021 session, making recommendations on 24 — with 13 being more stringent than current standards and 11 being weakened — and punting the other 32 to a working group preparing recommendations for this session.

Judiciary chair Charlie Trump, R-Morgan, said the work group recommended the EPA levels for all 32.

But Sen. Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha, objected that the rule allows companies to apply for site-specific criteria in their discharge permits, which removes legislative oversight. “I don’t think we need to go down that road.”

Trump argued in response that even if this bill passes both houses and gets signed by the governor, it has to go to the EPA for approval. If EPA approves it, DEP must then approve any permits with alternate, site-specific criteria that also must receive EPA approval.

Trump said that the DEP testified in committee that this procedure already exists for aquatic life criteria and this process won’t endanger drinking water. “I’m convinced that nothing in this is going to jeopardize the quality and purity of the waters of this state.”

The vote was 26-8, largely but not entirely along party lines. Locally, Democrat Bob Beach voted against it; Democrat Mike Caputo and Republicans Charles Clements, Mike Maroney, Randy Smith and Dave Sypolt voted for it.

Other bills

The Senate unanimously passed SB 261, requiring video cameras in certain special education classrooms. It goes to the House.

The House also passed and will send to the Senate:

HB 2817, to allow the Board of Pharmacy to administer a donated drug repository program for donating medications — not controlled substances — to indigent patients or others in need. The vote was 92-0.

HB 4048 clarifies that a person may possess loaded rifles and shotguns in their vehicles unless they are there for the purpose of illegal hunting. The vote was 91-1.

HB 4257 says that during a public emergency, a hospital must allow post-surgical visitation to a patient, once the patient is stable. The vote was 92-0.

TWEET David Beard @dbeardtdp