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House Judiciary meets to continue the discussion of Senate Bill 373

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With a few days left in the session, House members have until midnight March 8 to perfect Senate Bill 373.

The so-called "water bill" has been a recurring topic of discussion in the House Judiciary Committee and was discussed again Feb. 28.

Tom Curtis, deputy execute director of American Water Works Association and located in Denver, appeared before committee members to address questions.

Curtis, who runs the company's Washington D.C. office, said funding for infrastructure and the different projects that water companies need to properly and adequately operate is often times simply not there.

"Virtually every water system in America thinks they're under-funded and we agree," he said. "Water systems have been expected to fund themselves by their consumer base."

While Curtis said he thinks that's probably still the best model, it doesn't mean the money flows as easily as water.

Many communities need grants and loans won't work everywhere, Curtis said.

"It's unrealistic to expect a large pot of grant money to come out of Washington, D.C.," he said.

When it comes to the issue of water projects and plans for multiple water entities and providers, Curtis said it's important to remember that one size does not fit all.

"The quality, quantity, topography, demographics and pollutants in the water are all different," he said.

During the presentation, Curtis suggested some of the information in the proposed bill be kept private.

One of the easiest ways for someone who is a threat to national security to throw a state or country in chaos, Curtis said, is to create havoc for the water supply.

"I would strongly recommend some parts of the plan to be protected from public disclosure," he said.

With discussion still going strong and another committee — House Finance, to go through — before a vote from the full House can happen, some are worried Senate Bill 373 won't meet the end-of-session deadline.

During a Feb. 27 meeting, Delegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha, issued a news release stating that she, among other delegates, would be asking Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin for a special session to debate the water bill.

Delegate Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell, and Delegate Carol Miller, R-Cabell, agreed with Poore.

"Legislators remain in town while the budget conferees are working, so holding a special session on the water protection legislation during that period would be at no additional cost to the taxpayers," Sobonya said. 

"With all the legislation being considered the last week of session, I feel it would be the best decision to work on the water bill during budget week," Miller echoed.

The lawmakers agreed having more time to work on the bill would be a great benefit to the legislative process.

However, not everyone agreed.

House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said a special session would be unnecessary.

"The discussion of the need of a special session is unnecessary, as the bill is moving through out committee process in a timely manner," Miley said. "I regret that these members want to give up on passing a bill during the regular session when we will have plenty of time to perfect it."

In the Feb. 27 meeting, committee members met to hear legislative counsel explain the newest amendment to the proposed piece of legislation.

With almost 1,000 public water systems in the state, the bill calls on the Bureau of Public Health to offer supervision to the water companies and system. Public Health also would be responsible for updating the Source Water Protection Plan.

The plan, under the bill, would mean the Bureau of Public Health would have to take necessary action to implement an "aboveground storage tank regulatory program designed to protect each public water system in the state from contamination of its source water supply caused by the release of fluid from an aboveground storage tank."

The "zones of critical concern" also were classified as any chemical storage facility that, should a leak occur, could reach a public intake within a five-hour time frame.

The bill also would address those which could affect a water intake in a five-year time zone by traveling through the ground.

A second water intake would be called for, to ensure the intake is physically and economically feasible for all public intakes in the state to have another way of getting water, whether through a well or any other source.

Within the proposed bill is the redefinition of "storage tanks" to exclude tanks holding less than 1,100 gallons of a chemical.

Exclusions in the bill include aboveground storage tanks containing drinking water, filtered surface water, demineralized water, non-contact cooling water or water stored for fire or emergency purposes as well as indoor tanks and tanks located on a farm in which the contents of the tank are being used by the tank owner or operator for farming purposes.

Other excluded tanks are those located at establishments that have individual permits issued under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.

Those aboveground storage tanks excluded from any new regulation also would eliminate the need for inspections on tanks used in connection with oil and gas exploration, production, processing, gathering, treatment or storage operations or transmission facilities that are addressed in spill prevention, control and otherwise meet federal regulations, so as not to be double inspected.

The House Judiciary Committee will meet again to discuss the measure at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 2.