I have had a busy couple of weeks traveling in West Virginia and elsewhere. Last Saturday, I spoke on the Elk River chemical spill at a successful Earth Day Festival at Morgans Grove Park. The day before I spoke in Asheville, North Carolina at an American Bar Association conference. I was on a panel discussing water issues in government that focused on the chemical spill and the legal aftermath. Along with the discussion of the Elk River chemical spill and the water bill that we passed in West Virginia, there was a lengthy discussion about the Duke Energy coal ash spill into the Dan River in North Carolina. One of the things that North Carolina has discovered, in an eerily similar situation to West Virginia, is that the coal ash impound lakes were not regulated by the state. Just like the lack of regulation of Aboveground Storage Tanks in West Virginia, North Carolina was faced with addressing a brand new regulatory scheme for coal ash impoundments after the disaster.
It occurred to me while I was sitting on the panel, that this is something that we must examine in West Virginia as well. We certainly have giant coal slurry ponds that have some regulation right now, but I am unsure whether coal ash impoundment lakes are regulated. Coal slurry is the product of mining and processing coal for industrial and other uses. Coal ash is the remnants of burning coal. Both contain toxic amounts of heavy metals. We must be vigilant to make sure we have no more toxic spills into our rivers and streams and to protect our public water system's.
While I am always on the look out for legislative issues, I still want to continue to examine what the Legislature worked on during this last session. One of the bills that I co-sponsored would have established a Voluntary Employee Retirement Accounts (VERA) program here in West Virginia. HB 4409 targeted nearly 50% of private-sector employers whose employees are without a retirement plan. This bill was part of AARP's agenda in the state. VERA's meet an unmet need to provide lower income employees with an easier option for retirement savings. Although anyone can open up an IRA, the reality is that very few do. Less than a third of small business have retirement plans, largely due to high fees. This bill would allow the Treasurer's office to set up the plan and administer the VERA with only nominal cost to employees and no cost to employers. It's a real win-win to help folks save for retirement.
While the bill passed the House, it did not get taken up in the Senate. One of the most confusing things to me was some of the fierce opposition to it in the House. Some of the opponents claimed that the State shouldn't be in the position of competing with private retirement plans. Notwithstanding the fact that West Virginia government-run SMART 529 college savings plan is well run and popular, the fact is that the market has failed to meet the retirement needs of lower wage earners. More importantly, VERA offers a private-public partnership that would include private companies. I plan to sponsor this bill again and hope we can overcome the opposition.