Environment, Government, Latest News

Delegates debate how community air monitoring may be used, pass bill

CHARLESTON — After debate that has flared up almost daily, the House of Delegates passed a bill that would define standards for community programs to monitor and analyze information about air quality.

The bill still would need to be passed by the state Senate to move toward becoming law.

“This bill does not prevent community air monitoring,” said Delegate Bob Fehrenbacher, R-Wood. “It basically says be careful with the data that you get from that.”

Most of the debate has been about limits on how the collected air quality information could be used. The bill says that information, even if collected appropriately, could not be used for administrative punishments like fines or to bring lawsuits.

Delegates debated those points in committee, heard from concerned members of the public who objected to the limitations, argued on two different days about amendments that would have scratched the limitations and then debated the bill’s passage Tuesday.

“This is the ‘unclean air act,’ ” said Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha.

Although the bill says the secretary of West Virginia’s environmental agency may consider air monitoring data gathered under specific standards to determine whether further investigation is necessary to protect communities, the legislation goes on to say the secretary may not use only the original community data to issue a fine or notice of violation.

And, under the bill, community air monitoring data may not be used to bring legal actions, including a lawsuit, against anyone including the owner or operator of whatever could be reducing the air quality.

Most of the bill, HB 5018, just sets standards for community air monitoring installation, operation and maintenance.

Advocates of the legislation say the information needs to be standard to be considered reliable, and they emphasize they generally have no qualms with community air monitoring.

The difference is in whether such information could be used to levy administrative punishments against polluters or to bring a lawsuit.

“We are introducing directly on the judiciary’s duty to find truth,” Rowe said.

Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, also argued against the limitations on how information from community air monitoring could be used in court. He said the admission of evidence is the responsibility of the judiciary.

“What I do not support is the intrusion by the Legislature on the judiciary, saying what evidence can and cannot be introduced,” Steele said.