Senate to Take Up Chemical Safety Bill After West Virginia Spill

By | February 6, 2014

U.S. senators said they will take up a bill as soon as this week to require inspections and clean-up plans for chemical storage tanks, over the objection of industry, after a West Virginia spill tainted drinking water.

Industry representatives at a hearing of a Senate panel today urged lawmakers to go slow on writing new rules. Lawmakers used the hearing to criticize the company responsible for the spill, Freedom Industries Inc., and fault the response of federal regulators to the Jan. 9 accident.

“It is clear that we cannot afford to leave important opportunities to prevent chemical disasters on the shelf,” Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, told a panel of the Environment and Public Works Committee today. A bill could be considered as soon as this week, said Senator David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican.

The Congress is moving quickly after a chemical used to process coal leaked from a Freedom Industries tank along the Elk River, less than 2 miles miles from a water intake for West Virginia’s state capital, Charleston. The water company ordered its 300,000 customers to stop using the water, and Freedom Industries filed for bankruptcy protection a week after the spill.

The spilled chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or crude MCHM, is exempt from testing under laws for toxic substances because the materials were already in use when the law took effect.

State Inspections

Senators disagreed whether proposals to update a federal toxic substances law would have avoided the Charleston spill. A House panel separately discussed updating the toxics law today.

The Senate bill introduced after the West Virginia spill would require state inspections of above-ground storage tanks every five years. Companies using the chemicals would need to write clean-up plans that are filed with states.

While lawmakers sought quick action to avoid future water contamination, a representative from a lobbying group for owners of terminals that store such liquids urged restraint.

“If Freedom Industries disregarded existing regulations, company operating procedures, and/or industry standards, the most effective response would be stronger enforcement rather than the promulgation of new legislation and subsequent regulation,” said R. Peter Weaver, vice president of the International Liquid Terminals Association.

West Virginia’s secretary of state, testifying at the hearing, asked Congress for help in studying the long-term effects on the public from the chemical.

Natalie Tennant said a local health official told her that there are no studies about whether the chemical can cause cancer or birth defects. Tennant called for a 10-year study to monitor the long-term health and well being of the community.

–Editors: Steve Geimann, Jon Morgan

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