Legislative column: Making sure similar disasters don’t happen again

The first two and a half weeks of the legislative session have been dominated by the Jan. 9, 2014 chemical spill which left nearly 300,000 state residents without consumable water. As much as 7,500 gallons of a chemical known as “crude MCHM” leaked from an above-ground storage tank owned by Freedom Industries into the Elk River in Kanawha County.

I was working in my Senate office when I was first notified of the leak, and, like all West Virginians, was deeply troubled by the news. The chemical leak occurred on a Thursday, and so after completing my legislative duties the following day, I was able to return to the Northern Panhandle. Upon arriving home I could not have been more proud when I discovered that hundreds of people from Hancock, Brooke, Ohio and Marshall counties had already begun to gather drinking water and supplies for the affected areas. It’s remarkable how West Virginians band together and help one another in times of crisis. Many thanks are owed to everyone who lent a helping hand including emergency responders and medical professionals.

The Jan. 9 Elk River Chemical spill resulted in new legislation in the West Virginia Senate which will regulate above-ground chemical storage tanks. Senate Bill 373 creates a new system whereby tank owners are required to register with the state and meet certain safety standards set by the Department of Environmental protection (DEP) some of which include early notification of chemical spills, greater tank setback distances from water supplies and better leak detection systems. Additionally, under the current version of the bill, above-ground chemical storage tanks will be subject to annual inspections by the DEP.

Senate Bill 373 passed the Senate Judiciary committee on a unanimous 17-0 vote and will now head to the Senate floor where it will be subject to amendments and further debate by the full Senate. Should the legislation pass the Senate, it will then be subject to the committee process and deliberation by the full body of the House of Delegates before it can be signed into law by the Governor. I am confident that by the end of the legislative process we will have a piece of legislation that will help identify threats to our drink water so that disasters like that which just occurred in Charleston never happen again.

I encourage all of my constituents to contact me with any questions or concerns. Please send letters to Senator Rocky Fitzsimmons, State Capitol, Building 1, Room 204-W, Charleston, WV 25305 or 1609 Warwood Ave., Wheeling WV, 26003. You can also call me at (304) 357-7918 (Charleston) or (304) 277-1700 (Wheeling) or e-mail me at rocky@fitzsimmonsfirm.com

(Fitzsimmons, a Democrat from Wheeling, represents the 1st Senatorial District in the West Virginia Legislature)