Legislature changed by spill

CHARLESTON – Last week’s chemical spill in Charleston not only stalled the opening of West Virginia’s 2014 legislative session but also set the stage for what may be a new round of legislative scrutiny of industrial sites.

The spill from a Freedom Industries storage tank into the Elk River on Thursday led to a “do not use” order for 300,000 water customers in Charleston and parts of the surrounding eight counties in the Kanawha Valley in central West Virginia.

West Virginia American Water lifted the “do not use” order for downtown Charleston, including the Capitol complex, on Monday afternoon and continued to lift the ban for other surrounding zones throughout Tuesday, said Del. Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock.

“I showered this morning, and everything seemed fine,” Swartzmiller said on Tuesday.

Swartzmiller, 53, of Chester said the spill, in addition to inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of Charleston area residents, stalled the start of the new legislative session just as it began. The House of Delegates convened its regular session on Jan. 8, but by the following afternoon, word was spreading of a chemical leak and a contaminated water supply in the city.

“We found out by word of the mouth in the Capitol. Once the water ban was started, they did a pretty good job of getting the word out. … It went viral pretty quickly,” said Swartzmiller, who also is House speaker pro tempore.

The Legislature held brief floor sessions on Friday and Monday, but no bills were introduced and no other business was conducted, Swartzmiller said. The full House was expected to convene again at 6 p.m. Tuesday, he said.

“We told members that if they didn’t come in (Friday or Monday), they’d be excused,” Swartzmiller said. “We didn’t really have anything on the agenda anyway, so we didn’t miss anything.”

Most legislators, including Swartzmiller and his fellow District 1 Del. Ronnie D. Jones, D-Hancock, were out of town for the weekend. “I was glad when I got home (in Chester) so I could get a shower,” Swartzmiller said.

Swartzmiller, who rents an apartment in Charleston for the three months the House is in session, said he followed the utility’s instructions – before using the water Tuesday morning – by flushing the hot water for 15 minutes and the cold water for five minutes Monday night.

Jones, 60, of Weirton said he stayed away all weekend but planned to return to Charleston in time for Tuesday’s full session. “I think it’s going to put us behind because we lost two days of business,” he said. “We’re going to have to make it up at some point.”

As for whether the Legislature will revisit the issue of regulatory oversight for coal-related industries, Swartzmiller said it’s too early to tell.

“I don’t think anything can be done right away because we don’t have all the information. … To do anything too quickly would be a knee-jerk reaction,” he said. “You don’t know how to fix something until you know what’s actually broke. … Any potential legislation needs to be based on facts and not emotions. Emotions are running high down here right now.”

Swartzmiller said his biggest concern is one he raised when he was chairman of the Homeland Security Committee several years ago.

“Why isn’t there a plan to move the Legislature when there is a crisis situation,” he asked. “There’s no plan for that. Instead of pointing fingers at everybody else, I think we need to look at things that we have control over. … Right now, to up and move the Legislature would be a logistical nightmare.”

Swartzmiller, who has a background in regulatory compliance management with Ergon-West Virginia Inc., said there may be a role for the Legislature in the aftermath of last week’s accident.

He noted that after the 2006 Sago Mine disaster, in which 12 coal miners were killed, the Legislature passed a law requiring certain industries to report an emergency within 15 minutes of discovery. The law, enacted in 2009, imposes a penalty of up to $100,000 on facilities that fail to promptly report an emergency.

“I don’t think that’s something that happened here,” Swartzmiller said. “I have an understanding that things can go wrong and things need to be fixed.”

Jones, who worked for the Weirton water department and is now retired, said how municipal water treatment plants respond to such emergencies also may require legislative review.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency, has sent a team to investigate the Charleston spill.