Coal Tattoo

WVDEP’s Huffman goes off on Obama EPA

secretary-randy-huffman-portrait_small.jpgEriki Peterson over at West Virginia Public Broadcasting had an interesting piece today in which Gov. Joe Manchin’s Department of Environmental Protection Secretary, Randy Huffman, went off on the Obama administration’s move to take a closer look at mountaintop removal permits being issued by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Among other things, Huffman said:

“We are the environmental regulators here in West Virginia. We are the ones on the front line here. We are the ones responsible for protecting the environment. We have a very rigorous and robust regulatory program that is basically being challenged.”

Let me first say that I get along fine with Randy. Unlike many of his predecessors, Randy takes my phone calls, answers my questions, and is generally about as patient as I could expect from a DEP Secretary. I also think that, by and large, there are lots of really good and hard-working people at DEP who want to do their jobs well and make West Virginia a better place to live and work.

But wow.  Methinks Randy protests too much … let’s look at some of what he said in this public broadcasting piece …

“… primacy for regulating surface mining in West Virginia belongs to the state and not the federal government.”

Yes. Under the surface mining act, West Virginia has primacy to enforce the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. But, those aren’t the permits EPA is looking at. EPA is reviewing valley fill permit proposed to be issued by the federal Army Corps of Engineers under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. West Virginia’s DEP does not have primacy for those permits. And while one thing the Bush administration considered was giving state agencies primacy under Section 404, that hasn’t happened.

— “Mainly what we’re concerned about as regulators is the ability to develop land after mining,” he said. “You need valley fills if you’re going to have a viable post mining economy. You need flat land. And in order to have flat land you need to have valley fills, and one of our biggest concerns is that EPA is wanting to reduce the size and number of valley fills in Appalachia.”

Since when is DEP’s primary job supposed to be focused on the ability to develop land after mining? Silly me … I thought it was to protect the environment.

— “… [EPA’s] objection letters to these permits kind of came out of the blue and caught everyone off-guard.”

Were DEP officials not paying attention during the election? Then-candidate and now-President Barack Obama made it clear he was concerned about mountaintop removal and thought it was a practice that should be stopped. While Obama never said exactly what he would do about mountaintop removal, the fact that EPA has gotten more involved should not have surprised anyone at DEP or in the coal industry.

— “We have a very rigorous and robust regulatory program …

Come now. Remember first that mountaintop removal got out of control because for years DEP didn’t do its job, by failing to enforce the approximate original contour reclamation standard and the post-mining land development rules already on the books.

And, as I’ve written before, the state under former Gov. Cecil Underwood basically dared EPA to come in and take a closer look at valley fills when it insisted on passing a greatly weakened stream “mitigation bill.”

Today, the state is doing the same thing again, having passed the Stalling Selenium legislation, with hardly a word against it from DEP.  Truth be told, this legislation is patterned after what DEP has already tried to do: Give coal operators more and more time to avoid actually complying with water pollution standards for a chemical that has pushed at least one West Virginia watershed to the “brink of a major toxic event.”

DEP’s standard line on mountaintop removal goes something like this: Sure, we made some mistakes years ago. But we’ve learned a lot and beefed up our program. We are tougher on the coal industry than any state in the country.

But you have to wonder …

If that’s true, why did it take EPA and the Justice Department to come in and fine Massey Energy $20 million for thousands of water pollution violations across the state’s southern coalfields?

Well, that’s because the folks at DEP for four or five years simply shoved “discharge monitoring reports,” or DMRs, that companies file into a drawer somewhere, not bothering to check and see if Massey and other companies were complying with their pollution permit limits.

And let’s not forget, DEP has repeatedly missed legislative deadlines to complete a study on whether coal slurry injected underground is pollution water supplies and making people sick.

Or, the fact that it took a federal court order for DEP to even consider beginning to write permits and comply with water pollution limits at the abandoned mine sites it controls under its Special Reclamation Program.  DEP also proposed legislation this year that doesn’t got nearly as far as its own advisory panel said was needed to fix the finances of the Special Rec program.

And recently, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement found serious problems with the way DEP polices coal-slurry impoundments, which is one of the agency’s most important jobs.