Senators: Aluminum Bill Needs Repairs 

DEP may change how it is tested in water

Morgantown Dominion Post
1 February 2014
By David Beard

CHARLESTON – In the wake of the Freedom Industries spill and statewide concerns about water quality, Senators are aiming to fix a bill presented by the Department of Environmental Protection that many fear could weaken the protections for aluminum pollution.

The DEP wants to change its measure for aluminum concentration in water from a fixed standard to one based on the water’s hardness (concentration of minerals, in particular calcium chloride). DEP contends this will prevent both overregulation and under regulation, and save the state and industry money.

Environmental concerns say the science behind this is inadequate and simply offers the coal and quarrying industries the freedom to pollute more easily.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency explains: “Toxicity information about aluminum is generally lacking. It has been determined that fish tend to be more sensitive to aluminum toxicity than aquatic invertebrates. Aluminum can cause pulmonary and developmental problems.”

Two weeks after the Freedom Industries chemical spill, on Jan. 22, SB 136, the water quality rules bill from the DEP, slipped quietly through the Senate Natural Re- sources Committee.

The panel had spent nearly 50 minutes of the one-hour meeting debating SB 373 — the new above-ground tank regulations. With a few minutes left, Senators took up SB 136, the 56-page modification of certain water quality rules, including aluminum.

It’s not unusual for laymen legislators to rely on the experts for complicated rules bills filled with equations — unless lobbyists call their attention to problems.

In this case, said Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, no one had sounded an alarm and the panel quickly OK’d it. The alarms came afterward — largely via a burst of social media protests.

In its explanation for the change, the DEP said studies show a relationship between hardness and the toxicity of dissolved aluminum in waters with a pH range of 6.5 to 9.0 (7 is neutral in the 0-14 scale, with lower numbers more acid and higher more base). More aluminum is therefore permissible in harder water.

Changing the standard, DEP said, can prevent unnecessary treatment costs for industry and save the state money and resources by taking some streams off the EPA’s impaired list. Colorado and New Mexico use hardness-based standards.

Don Garvin, legislative coordinator for the West Virginia Environmental Council, spearheaded the protests in the Capitol. There are few solid studies on the effects of hardness on aluminum toxicity, he said.

He said in a handout, “Whether these higher levels of aluminum will cause biological harm … is simply not known. This proposed rule offers a dream scenario for the mining and quarrying industry. ” As environmental disturbance increases, water hardness and aluminum also increase. “The more aluminum that is released from a mined or quarried site, the more aluminum DEP permits to be discharged.”

Beach, a member of the Natural Resources and Judiciary Committees, said, “In the community it’s perceived we’re trying to weaken water quality in this state. You can argue it either way but perception rules in this situation.”

He first approached DEP about pulling the bill, but DEP told him and The Dominion Post that the rules package contains other items it wants considered. DEP told The Dominion Post the Senate should consider amending the bill, and that’s also the message it gave Beach.

Beach said the DEP relayed to him that it won’t oppose Judiciary amending the aluminum provisions out of the bill and will have someone on hand to say that.

DEP wouldn’t confirm that to The Dominion Post. It said, "The DEP respects the legislative process and understands that amendments can be made to any of its proposed rules at any point during the session. Beyond that, we have no comment.”

Beach said he and some colleagues are working on drumming up committee support to approve the amendment. He thinks it may come onto the agenda on Wednesday or Thursday. “We ’ll have to wait and see.”