Senators introduce chemical spill and water protection bill after West Virginia leak.

On Monday, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) introduced a bill to prevent future chemical spills like the one that recently contaminated the Elk River and the drinking water for 300,000 West Virginians. The Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection Act of 2014 (S. 1961), cosponsored by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), provides a framework for overseeing chemical storage facilities and equipping states and public water companies to respond to spills and other emergencies. The bill amends the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) by adding a new Part G, “Protection of Surface Water from Contamination by Chemical Storage Facilities.”

According to a press release from Sen. Manchin’s office, the Act is premised on four key principles:

1. Requiring regular state inspections of above-ground chemical storage facilities,
2. Requiring industry to develop state-approved emergency response plans that meet at least minimum guidelines established in this bill, 
3. Allowing states to recoup costs incurred from responding to emergencies, and 
4. Ensuring drinking water systems have the tools and information to respond to emergencies.

The Act applies to chemical storage facilities for which the EPA or delegated state authority has determined “that a release of the chemical from the facility poses a risk of harm to a public water system.” It establishes state programs under SDWA to oversee and inspect the facilities, building on existing water protection plans. The bill sets federal minimum standards for chemical facilities regarding construction, leak detection and spill requirements, emergency response plans, and notification to EPA, state officials, and public water systems of stored chemicals. Inspections would be required on a regular basis, either every three of five years, depending on drinking water protection plans. The Act also ensures that EPA or the states can recover costs from facility owners and operators for emergency response activities.

The bill does not tackle the current framework’s deficit of health hazard information for the over 60,000 chemicals “grandfathered” in by the passage of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) – a gap which has received significant public criticism in the wake of the Elk River spill. There has been no indication whether the TSCA reform bills currently pending in the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee might be amended in response to the West Virginia spill.

The text of the legislation [PDF] and a one-page fact sheet [PDF] are available on Sen. Manchin’s website. The bill has been referred to the Senate EPW Committee; the Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife has scheduled a hearing for February 4 entitled, “Examination of the Safety and Security of Drinking Water Supplies Following the Central West Virginia Drinking Water Crisis.”