West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection has a big problem, when it comes to implementing new rules that require above-ground storage tanks to be registered by Oct. 1. The DEP has no idea how many tanks are in the state.
When crude MCHM leaked into the Elk River a few months ago, the resulting disaster revealed some pretty big holes in the DEP's ability to monitor such facilities. But a law passed during the regular legislative session was meant to address those gaps in knowledge. Owners of above-ground storage tanks that hold more than 1,300 gallons of fluid and are in one place for more than 60 days must register with the DEP.
"We don't have a good estimate at this time on how many tanks," said Kelley Gillenwater, chief communications officer for the DEP. "We're estimating it to be in the thousands, possibly in the tens of thousands."
They simply do not know. They do not know how many tanks there are or where those tanks might be, nor do they have any way to ensure all tank owners are following the law.
According to the DEP, they are relying on registration being done in good faith.
In other words, they are relying on the kinds of folks who would be responsible enough to voluntarily comply with a toothless law to register tanks those owners would likely handle with the same level of responsibility.
Lawmakers who felt as though they needed to be seen taking action during the crisis were warned that passing an empty law for the sake of having something on the books would put the DEP right back where it started. Tank owners who are careless enough to allow their facilities to become a danger to the public are probably not going to rush onto the DEP's website to alert it to potential violations.
It is a shame the DEP was not required to find a better way to keep an eye on these tanks - nevermind tanks carrying 1,250 gallons, and sitting on truck beds that can be moved once in a while. The new law says if the DEP finds out about violators, they could face a fine, receive a cease and desist order or be locked out.
Judging by previous events, those are probably risks anyone bent on avoiding the law would be willing to take.