Coal Tattoo


Kenny Stroud and his son ponder their contaminated water in their Rawl, Mingo County, W.Va. home.  Photo by Vivian Stockman.

Since WVDEP’s drop of its long-awaited coal-slurry injection study after the close of business on Thursday, I’ve had time to read the entire report. And this is what I’ve come up with so far:

secretary-randy-huffman-portrait_small.jpgDEP  Secretary Randy Huffman says his agency doesn’t have enough information on what water quality was like before companies started pumping this coal waste underground to say for sure if the slurry impacted that water quality.

Here are a few of the quotes:

— …There are insufficient surface and groundwater monitoring sample sites to determine effects from slurry injection on surface and groundwater.

Most of the assessment sites lacked detailed information on mine pool conditions and adequate monitoring of the quantity and quality of the mine pool associated with the injection activities.

— Due to insufficient groundwater characterization and monitoring by the operators, definitive conclusions could not be drawn on the extent of the effects of slurry injection on the surrounding groundwater regime.

— (And my favorite) Operators did not conclusively demonstrate that, when slurry is injected into abandoned underground mines, it remains contained and the surrounding hydrologic regime is not adversely affected.

Some of this seems like common sense … I mean, if you want to know if this stuff damaged the water, you need to know what the water was like before the slurry got injected underground. And, you need to monitor the water quality all along the way, right?

OK. So why didn’t WVDEP make the operators do that?

The report doesn’t say. But it makes it clear that WVDEP had the authority to do so, if it had wanted to … Take a look at page 15. It’s right there. “The UIC regulations at CSR 47-13-13.7 … allow the WVDEP to impose conditions in permits on a case-by-cases basis to assure compliance with the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act and the State Water Pollution Control Act and rules.”

What kind of conditions? Well, for one thing, the WVDEP could have required monitoring and reporting requirements.

And what’s more, the existing regulations show that WVDEP has this whole thing backwards. The state doesn’t have to prove that slurry injection is damaging water in order to do something. Rather, the regs put the ball in the industry’s court. CSR 38-2-15.5.e.2 provides that discharges into underground mine workers are prohibited “unless the operator demonstrates that such activities will not cause, result in, or contribute to a violation of water quality standards and effluent limitations both on or outside the permit area.”

So, if WVDEP found in this study that it doesn’t have enough information to say if slurry is damaging water supplies, then how in the world could operators have made the showing required under that regulation?

A couple of other interesting things …

First of all, in our print edition this morning, I wrote the WVDEP had not said how long the moratorium on new slurry injection permits would last.  Late last night, I got an e-mail message from WVDEP spokesman Tom Auise, saying my story was wrong, and that the DEP news release said it would last for two years. I re-read the news release, and it said no such thing.

This morning, I had another e-mail from Tom, saying that WVDEP had originally posted on its Web site a news release including the two-year limit on the moratorium. But, he said, that information had later been deleted, because agency officials had decided not to go with a two-year moratorium.

Later today, Tom sent me this explanation  of the confusion:

“Originally, the idea was for a two-year moratorium but we ultimately decided that was just an arbitrary period of time that didn’t bear any relationship to environmental protection issues.

“Instead, we went with an indefinite moratorium to give us enough time to implement the study’s recommendations. Once we have the program in better condition and the study’s recommendations are implemented to the satisfaction of the DEP, then consideration will be given to whether the moratorium should be lifted.”

Second, the WVDEP study makes it clear that coal slurry is migrating into underground water …    See page 8, for example:

Certain constituents, such as alkalinity, Total Dissolved Solids, sulfates, and some organics, had migrated from the slurry into the mine pool that received the injection.

Or, see page 32:

A comparison of the mine pools in adjacent deep mines where slurry did not occur supports the conclusion that injection activities impact mine pool water quality. Specifically, the water of the mine pool shows increased concentrations of total dissolved solids, alkalinity, and sulfates.

Or, page 33:

Two of the four sites showed changes in water quality of the mine pool receiving injection. Certain constituents migrated from the slurry into the mine pool.

But again, WVDEP’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy:

…Migration of the constituents from the mine pool to the surrounding groundwater was difficult to determine due to a lack of background information prior to injection and appropriate monitoring of changes by the operator.