Protecting our water resources: How does WV compare with other states?

The State Journal
3 September 2014
By April Kaull, Anchor

The chemical leak at Freedom Industries Jan. 9, 2014, and subsequent water crisis that affected West Virginia American Water Company customers in part of nine counties forced communities to make safe water a bigger priority. It became evident that the state did not have existing laws to address some of the issues that arose during the incident. Those issues included regulations for inspecting above-ground storage tanks and a reporting process for water utilities to share their emergency response plans with state-level officials.

"This incident was a wake up call," according to Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley. West Virginia lawmakers began drafting a bill that eventually became The Water Resources Protection Act.

"We got some pushback from water utilities, suggesting that what we were asking was going to cost money and time," Unger said. "My response was that it was my understanding that they were required to do it anyhow."

A 2002 federal law required water utilities to file documents related to Emergency Response Plans (ERP) and Vulnerability Assessments (VA) with the Environmental Protection Agency. When contacted to confirm whether West Virginia American Water Company is in compliance, the EPA issued the following response.

"EPA did not receive the actual ERP from American Water Company, but did receive a certification of completion from the utility. WV American Water has completed its Emergency Response Plan and complied with the Bioterrorism Act."

The Water Resources Protection Act, known as Senate Bill 373, will require similar reporting to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.

Unger also explained how lawmakers researched what regulations and protocols were already in effect in others states as they drafted the new law. The Legislature reached out to Massachusetts to see how officials there handled water protection plan reporting. Then Unger said his committee investigated Minnesota law, which included company monitoring and inspections by engineers. In addition, lawmakers looked at Virginia, Maryland, Illinois, Ohio, Arkansas and Florida. The research also included conversations with officials in New York and New Jersey, both of which have stringent requirements already in place.

Below is a statement from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection:

“The NJDEP requires the preparation of water Purveyor Emergency Response Plans and Teams at NJAC 7:19-11.2. Although the next round of rules expected to be adopted in 2015 expand on the current requirements, we currently require:
1. The NJDEP can require plans for all purveyors over 3,000 customers or any purveyor as required by NJDEP;
2. Plan shall include:
a. Organizational structure and names/contact info of emergency response personnel;
b. Emergency notification and communication procedures;
c. Interconnections and backup supplies to be utilized;
d. Interim water restrictions, conservation measures, and alternate sources of water;
e. Coordination procedures with other agencies;
f. Resource inventory;
g. Vulnerability assessment; and
h. Any other information deemed appropriate by the NJDEP.
3. They need to update plans whenever there is a major change in procedures, but at least every two years.
4. Emergency response teams shall include managerial, technical, operations, and public information personnel.
5. The purveyor shall periodically evaluate the effectiveness of the plan and revise as needed.”

In addition to West Virginia, American Water Company has subsidiaries in a number of other states. We checked with New Jersey, one of the state's where American Water Company has operations, to see if the subsidiaries are complying with the regulations. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection confirmed that it currently has a "single ERP for all of the NJ American Water systems.”

While American Water subsidiaries operate in other states, there are concerns that West Virginia's new law still doesn't go far enough to provide transparency.

"When we compare ourselves to other states, it's clear that we have much more work to do," according to Dr. Rahul Gupta, executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department. He pointed back to Jan. 9, and the way the public discovered the water system had been compromised. "Remember, this was an event in which people called the water company to tell them that their water was contaminated. Emergency responders at the local and state levels called the water company to tell them perhaps their water was contaminated. That can't happen again."

Unger agrees that the work is not over when it comes to protecting our water resources. He explained that is why Senate Bill 373 established the Public Water System Supply Study Commission. Members from studies and report back to the Legislature. The Commission will consist of 12 members: four members appointed by the Governor, one representative designated by the Rural Water Association, the Municipal League, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Bureau for Public Health, the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, the Chairman of the Public Service Commission, a non-voting member appointed by the Senate President and a non-voting member appointed by the Speaker of the House.

The Commission will report back to the Joint Committee on Government and Finance on the effectiveness of the legislation, as well as suggestions to improve the infrastructure of existing public water systems and to pursue other measures designed to protect the integrity of public water service. Its first report is expected Dec. 15, 2014.

In the meantime, American Water Company issued a statement in response to questions about its compliance with existing laws and corporate culture. In it, the company stated: "We have a record of complying with, and in many cases surpassing, the standards set by environmental laws and regulations. ... Regarding, corporate citizenship, at American Water, it is our commitment to hold ourselves to high standards of integrity, deliver the highest quality products and services, and utilize the resources of our business to serve the public good while delivering growth and value to customers, shareholders and employees."