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West Virginia agriculture bill stokes fears about pesticide-spewing logging facility

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A West Virginia bill approved by the House of Delegates on Tuesday that limits counties from regulating agricultural operations is stoking fears that a logging company could resurrect plans to build a toxic-spewing fumigation facility in the picturesque Allegheny Mountains.

The House voted 84-16 to approve the bill that previously passed the state Senate. Both chambers have Republican supermajorities. The bill would bar counties from usurping state law on agricultural operations, including revoking such county regulations that were previously adopted.

The bill “is really just a backdoor way for non-local, corporate entities to build whatever they want, wherever they want, whenever they want, regardless of the impact on local communities,” said Hardy County resident John Rosato.

Last May, Allegheny Wood Products withdrew an application for a state air permit to build a facility off U.S. Route 48 in the Hardy County community of Baker after residents bombarded state regulators with opposition. At the time, the county commission said the company’s efforts would have faced huge hurdles locally.

The facility would treat logs before they are shipped overseas. Prior to the company backing down, the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Air Quality said it tentatively planned to issue the permit that would let the facility emit up to nearly 10 tons (9.07 metric tons) of the pesticide methyl bromide into the atmosphere each year.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, methyl bromide can cause lung disease, convulsions, comas and ultimately death. It is three times heavier than air and can accumulate in poorly ventilated or low-lying areas and remain in the air for days under adverse conditions.

The bill doesn’t specifically address the fumigation facility, but it bans counties from prohibiting the purchase or restricting the use of any federal or state-registered pesticide, herbicide or insecticide.

“This bill is of specific interest to many Hardy County residents because it contains language that would explicitly address a situation specific to Hardy County,” county planner Melissa Scott wrote in an email to The Associated Press.

It’s unknown whether Allegheny Wood Products, which has eight sawmills in the state, wants to resume its efforts to obtain an air permit. It would be required to submit a new application. A company official didn’t immediately respond to an email and a phone message left by the AP.

It also wasn’t known whether Republican Gov. Jim Justice plans to sign the bill. A spokesperson for the governor didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. The governor’s family owns dozens of businesses, including coal and agriculture. According to the governor’s official website, Justice’s companies farm more than 50,000 acres (20,200 hectares) of corn, wheat, and soybeans in West Virginia and three other states.

Also under the bill, county commissions also would be barred from adopting ordinances that regulate buildings on agricultural land or operations. Hardy County is along the Virginia line in the heart of the state’s poultry industry and is less than a two hours’ drive from Washington, D.C.

Scott said there is plenty of confusion about the bill’s purpose.

“Counties are looking at the worst-case scenario of how this law could be legally applied,” in particular the “very broad” language relating to agriculture, she said. “The outcome could be bleak when it comes to existing local processes that protect citizens and small farmers.”

In recent years, lawmakers expanded agriculture definitions to encompass what Scott called “nearly any activity taking place on any rural land.”

“There is no doubt that this (latest) bill removes county powers to regulate activities relating to agricultural activities, but the devil is in the details,” she said. “What activities are considered ‘related to agricultural operations’? I can say for sure that under the current definitions, this is much more than what most West Virginians think of as agriculture.”

John Raby, The Associated Press

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