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West Virginia looks to tighten rules after chemical spill contaminated water

Residents line up for water at a water filling station at West Virginia State University, in Institute, West Virginia, January 10, 2014. REU
Residents line up for water at a water filling station at West Virginia State University, in Institute, West Virginia, January 10, 2014. REU

(Reuters) - West Virginia's governor on Monday proposed legislation to regulate above-ground storage tanks, a move that comes after a spill of coal-processing chemicals shut off drinking water to about 300,000 people.

Governor Earl Ray Tomblin said the proposed rules would regulate above-ground tanks, including those near public water supplies and distribution systems.

"The discharge of chemicals or other contaminants into our water supply is unacceptable and will not be tolerated," Tomblin, a Democrat, said in a joint statement with U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, also a Democrat, and the heads of the state Senate and House of Delegates.

Tomblin said the legislation would in part assure that above-ground tanks were built and maintained in line with safety standards.

About 300,000 people around Charleston, the state capital, were banned from using tap water for anything but flushing toilets following the January 9 spill of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or crude MCHM, into the Elk River.

The spill from a Freedom Industries tank was about a mile upriver from the area's main water plant, West Virginia American Water, a unit of American Water Works Company Inc.

Tomblin declared a state of emergency while the chemical, used in coal processing, was flushed out of the water system.

West Virginia authorities completely lifted the ban on the use of tap water on Saturday, but advised pregnant women to continue using alternative water sources.

Tomblin said the legislation would allow the state Department of Environmental Protection to implement an above-ground tank regulation program that would require operators to report tanks' location, construction and maintenance.

It also requires annual inspections and certifications and allows the head of the environmental agency to order a plant to take corrective action when storing potentially harmful material. Plants also would have to submit spill prevention plans for each tank.

Tomblin said the legislation would not duplicate state and federal regulations.

Freedom Industries, a maker of specialty chemicals, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Friday.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington; Editing by Edith Honan and Lisa Shumaker)

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