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Congress to Focus on West Virginia Chemical Spill

The following article is republished with the permission of the Environmental Council of the States from their newsletter.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has scheduled a hearing for February 4 in Washington, DC, to review the recent chemical spill in Charleston, West Virginia. Randy Huffman, Cabinet Secretary of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, has been invited to testify.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has scheduled a separate hearing to be held in Charleston on February 10. The witness panel for that hearing has not yet been announced.

On January 17, Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), and Joe Manchin (D-WV) announced plans to introduce a bill that would create new rules under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) for chemical storage facility construction, tracking, leak detection, and emergency response.

On the same day, Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI), with support from Rockefeller, introduced a pair of bills (S. 1951 and S. 1958) to amend the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) to expand the definition of “hazardous substance” to include any pollutant or contaminant for which the President implements any response measures for their release.  The bills would also require containment facilities to craft response plans and make companies liable to cover remediation and response costs in the event of a spill.  The bills would raise CERCLA’s cap on funds that can be spent on emergency response actions from $2 million to $4 million.

However, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said on January 14 that he is opposed to enacting new regulatory measures for spills, dimming the prospects for passage of any new bill.

Earlier this month, thousands of gallons of a coal-cleaning chemical leaked near the Elk River, a source of drinking water for Charleston. For a period of days, residents were advised not to drink or bathe in the water. And in September, more than 200,000 gallons of molasses were spilled off the coast of Honolulu, Hawaii.  Shortly thereafter, a sizeable “dead zone” was thought to have formed in the immediate vicinity.