WVDEP Dissent: Biologist says Huffman wrong on MTR

August 21, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.

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Photo by Vivian Stockman

secretary-randy-huffman-portrait_small.jpgWest Virginia Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman’s testimony in June at a congressional hearing on mountaintop removal has drawn a lot of comment, and even helped fuel a protest calling for his resignation.

It turns out that even some folks within Huffman’s own agency were none too happy with his staunch defense of the coal industry before a hearing of a Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee.

Behind the scenes, a respected biologist at the WVDEP’s Division of Water and Waste Management responded with a strongly worded memo that challenged Huffman’s statements and urged agency officials to make sure the secretary “will be better informed the next time he represents our agency’s current state of knowledge to federal authorities and elected representatives.”

Doug Wood, a biologist in the water division’s watershed assessment section, wrote his memo on June 30, less than a week after Huffman appeared in Washington at a hearing on a bipartisan bill that would end the coal industry’s practice of burying hundreds of miles of streams with waste rock and dirt (the stuff that used to be mountains).

Wood’s memo showed up in my mail, packaged in an envelope without a return address. I’ve posted a copy of it here. I tried to reach both Huffman and one of Wood’s direct supervisors to ask about it, but haven’t heard back from them this week.

Updated, 4:20 p.m. Friday — Randy Huffman called me back, and said he had not seen this memo … we’ll have more on this development in Saturday’s Gazette-Mail.

The memo’s worth taking a look at, both for the way it directly contradicts specific statements Huffman made in his Senate testimony, and for its broader implications — and especially because Wood makes clear that biologists at WVDEP support the scientific findings of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others that mountaintop removal is having dramatic effects on the state’s water resources.

For example, Wood writes:

With valley fill discharges, especially those from very large valley fills, we can expect the negative impacts to last for centuries, just as deep mine discharges have remained toxic for centuries.

Such long-lasting adverse impacts are indeed significant.

Recall that the Senate hearing featured devastating testimony from EPA and from independent scientists like Margaret Palmer of the University of Maryland, who told lawmakers:

The impacts of mountaintop removal with valley fills are immense and irreversible.

But, Huffman — West Virginia’s chief environmental protection officer — gave the Senate committee a staunch defense of the coal industry generally and mountaintop removal specifically.

For example, Huffman said:

West Virginia and the nation need jobs and coal.

And, Huffman testified:

Coal production is the leading revenue generator for West Virginia, and many in the State are concerned about losing the opportunities for future economic development associated with mountaintop mining.

Or, he added:

The greater concern for the Department of Environmental Protection, however, as protector of the State’s water resources, is the unintended consequences of the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent actions that have the potential to significantly limit all types of mining.

In his memo, Wood singled out Huffman’s testimony regarding a widely cited study by EPA scientists Greg Pond and Margaret Passmore, which detailed their findings that mountaintop removal was killing aquatic life — an indication of its broader damage to water quality and the entire ecosystem.

Just as the coal industry has done, Huffman tried to make out like the Pond-Passmore study was the only justification for any effort by the Obama administration to toughen regulation of mountaintop removal — ignoring, as the industry also does, all of the other scientific evidence of the damage being done.

According to Huffman:

The WVDEP does not believe that this study justifies the sweeping change in regulatory approach the EPA is making.

Without evidence of any significant impact on the rest of the ecosystem beyond the diminished numbers of certain genus of mayflies, the State cannot say that there has been a violation of its narrative standard.

Interestingly enough, the new FACES of Coal group said something remarkably similar in one of its “Fact Sheets” on mountaintop removal, issued this week:

In short, the EPA contends that the absence of mayflies, an ultra-sensitive insect, is an indicator of impact on water quality, and that any impact from mining, no matter how subtle, is not allowable.

But in his memo, Wood explained what the EPA study means to a biologist who studies water quality and aquatic life (also interesting is his use of the term “quarries” instead of “mines”):

We know have clear evidence that in some streams that drain mountaintop coal quarry valley fills, the entire order Ephemeroptera (mayflies) has been extirpated, not just certain genera of this order. We also have evidence that some streams no longer support the order Plecoptera (stoneflies). Some genera of stoneflies are particularly sensitive to high total dissolved solids just as some mayfly genera are.

So, in streams below valley fills where stoneflies have survived, that order’s diversity has been diminished. There are other genera and species of other orders of benthic macroinvertegrates that have been negatively impacted by streams draining mountaintop coal quarries, not just a few “genus” [sic] {Note — the “sic” is Woods correcting Huffman’s choice of words}  of mayflies

The loss of an order of insects from a stream is taxonomically equivalent to the loss of all primates (including humans) from a given area. The loss of two insect orders is taxonomically equivalent to killing all primates and all rodents through toxic chemicals.

Such adverse ecological impacts are most certainly significant, and they prevent affected streams from meeting their designated aquatic life uses.

Wood goes on to say:

Salamanders, the top predators of headwater stream ecosystems have also been significantly negatively impacted by mountaintop coal quarries.  Our searches consistently show no salamanders or only one species out of four or five expected stream salamander species immediately below valley fills until stream stretches below un-quarried tributaries are reached.

The one salamander species complex most frequently encountered nearest to valley fills is the two-lined salamander (Eurycea bislineata/cirrigera) well-known for its ability to survive in disturbed aquatic environments.

Wood also responded specifically to Huffman’s comment that EPA lacks “evidence of any significant impact on the rest of the ecosystem beyond the diminished numbers of certain genus of mayflies,” saying:

… There is ample evidence that mountaintop quarrying in general has had significant adverse impacts on many geological/pedalogical and hydrological components of both lentic (still water bodies) and lotic (flowing water bodies) aquatic ecosystems.

Streams below valley fills, Wood says:

usually score marginal or poor in our rapid habitat assessments of sites we visit … 

Wood also noted:

The developmental abnormalities found in fish in the Mud River reservoir have been attributed in part to selenium toxicity. As you know, we are finding high selenium concentrations in more streams below valley fills with each new field season.

Wood sent his memo not directly to Huffman, but up through the chain of command at WVDEP — to his bosses, Jeff Bailey, John Wirts and Pat Campbell. Woods made it clear that he has written “numerous memoranda and reports” since at least 2002, but yet noted that “it appears that Secretary Huffman is unaware of the findings of our efforts to understand the effects of mountaintop coal extraction to ecosystems in West Virginia.”

In conclusion, Wood wrote:

I hope this information helps Secretary Huffman explain to federal authorities that our data are consistent with data generated by the Environmental Protection Agency researchers and several other well-respected researchers in the field of aquatic ecology.

I stand ready to assist him and other policy makers to understand ecological impacts of various permitted activities in West Virginia, including mountaintop coal quarrying.

We now have an excellent opportunity to improve intra-agency and inter-agency communications so that all our efforts more effectively protect stream uses for future generations, and more efficiently restore streams degraded by short-sighted abuses of the past. I hope our agency is moving in that direction.

22 Responses to “WVDEP Dissent: Biologist says Huffman wrong on MTR”

  1. Brad says:

    Wow. This is a bombshell.

    Huffman seems to be intentionally ignoring the findings of his own scientists. Why would he do such a thing?

  2. Cheerleader says:

    Touche! GO, DOUG, GO!!!
    I like his use of the word “quarrying.” I hadn’t thought of it before, but it is a better fit than “mining,” and I think I’ll start using it myself!

  3. blue canary says:

    WOW. That is one hell of a letter. I can’t wait to see Huffman’s response, considering his job is to protect the ENVIRONMENT, not the coal industry. Thanks for posting it, Ken, and props to your mystery informant.

  4. Clem Guttata says:

    Sec. Randy Huffman is in quite a pickle now. He’s either incompetent at running an agency that requires the free-flow of scientific information or he committed perjury in his Senate testimony.

    It is a real embarrassment to the state of West Virginia that a major state government agency is in danger of federal takeover for mismanagement.

  5. eastwood78 says:

    What a cheerleader Mr. Huffman is for coal. He should be relieved of his position ASAP. This will probably result in a Federal take over of a West Virginia State agency as Clem said. He more than likely committed perjury in his testimony before the Senate. Will our great governor fire him? I don’t look for that to happen. Good reporting Ken, and thanks for doing such a good job of keeping us informed.

  6. […] Ward immediately posted about it.  Ken uploaded the memo and linked it to his post. It is worth reading in its […]

  7. bo webb says:

    Randy Huffman has created a nightmare for himself and his agency. It’s difficult to believe that he has not been aware of this memo, and even more difficult to believe he has not been aware of the findings and assessment of Doug Wood. He either lied to the Senate or he totally was not prepared to testify before the Senate. If he lied he should resign immediately. It doesn’t really matter if he was prepared to testify or not, the bottom line is that he offered bogus information before the US Senate.
    I’ve long thought that Joe Manchin has slickstered Randy Huffman into being his fall guy. I predict that when the heat gets a little warmer Joe Manchin will fire Huffman in order to protect himself and his ambitions to be WV’s next US Senator.
    The Senate now may want to call Huffman before them to explain all this. If not, they should. I hope they don’t forget to send Joe a request to appear as well.

  8. Incensed says:

    The comment by one of the memo’s recipients (Campbell) in Saturday’s print version adds insult to injury: “I’m really not so much concerned about the content, but with how this document got to you. This was an internal memo that nobody has had a chance to read yet.”
    Excuse me? The memo was dated June 30, yesterday was August 21, and no one had had a chance to read it yet? Now, of course I’m only speculating, but I’d guess this is precisely the reason WHY the memo landed in Ken’s inbox–because no one within the DEP was paying any attention.
    EPA, WHERE ARE YOU?? Please shoot this disfunctional agency and get it out of our misery.

  9. Vernon Haltom says:

    There is now plenty of evidence that DEP management is, at best, incompetent. DEP needs some whistleblowers, who should know that they are protected by law. The federal investigations need to start now before documents like this get shredded.

  10. rhmooney3 says:

    From my having been in state, federal and county agencies for more than three decades (1975-2007) I can say that it is very likely that the June memo did not reach the top of the agency — if it had, other memoes would have been written to convey and/or dismiss it.

    I can also say that in presenting prepared testimony Secretary Huffman would have gotten assurances from his staff on those statements. (This is especially so since the mayflies and other water quality issues were very much in the media.)

    Very much so, there is need for an independent review of the adquacy of the environmental regulation of coal mining — both by surface and underground methods — in West Virginia and all of Appalachia. (The National Academies should do it.)

    Note: I was with OSMRE (1978-1995) after being an Ohio reclamation specialist (1975-1978).

  11. bo webb says:

    What remains to be seen now is if the media is going to follow through and report this story or will this result in another DEP disclosure swept under the rug.
    More DEP personnel need to step forward as I am sure there is a lot more the public should know about their tax payer funded environmental protection agency.

  12. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Bo,

    I’m not sure what you mean about whether the media is going to report this story.

    We reported it Friday in Coal Tattoo and ran a story on the front page of the print edition on Saturday. The AP picked up the story on Saturday, and sent it out statewide for Sunday newspapers.

    Your comment came in at 5:13 a.m. Monday — what are you talking about?

    It looks like to me the media reported this story.

    Ken.

  13. bo webb says:

    Ken, I meant nothing negative toward the Gazette. Thanks to the Gazette and your blog, we are getting informed. But, there are numerous tv stations and other media sources that never seem to follow up on these issues.

  14. […] FACES comes from a world where blowing up mountains and dumping the waste into streams (which even officials in the WVDEP are now saying harms water quality) is environmental “protection.” […]

  15. […] FACES comes from a world where blowing up mountains and dumping the waste into streams (which even officials in the WVDEP are now saying harms water quality) is environmental “protection.” […]

  16. […] Protection and their embattled Secretary, Randy Huffman. It also follows days after the leak of DEP biologist Doug Wood’s memo on the scale of environmental degradation caused by mountaintop removal, directly contradicting […]

  17. eastwood78 says:

    How many of Mr. Huffman’s staff will lose their jobs over this? Some of them will surely be blamed for not getting this information to him. Maybe Mr. Huffman would like to make a statement on Coal Tatto. As we all know Coal Tatto is open to everyone to make a comment and that includes Mr. Blankenship, governor Manchin, and all others who want to express their opinion. I look forward to seeing Mr. Huffman’s response in the Coal Tatto. I agree with Bo Webb about other media outlets not carrying these reports, but that does not include the Charleston Gazette or Coal Tatto. Ken, we know you do a wonderful job of bringing us the information that we otherwise would not receive from other media sources. Keep up the good work. Long live Coal Tatto.

  18. Vernon Haltom says:

    Right now, citizens are in trees at Massey’s Edwight surface mine (S301299), doing the job DEP refuses to do–halting the operations of a repeat offender. DEP should shut this operation down due to a pattern of violations as indicated on their own inspection reports posted on their website at wvdep.org. DEP continues to shirk its responsibilities, so the citizens must step up to the plate.

  19. eastwood78 says:

    School has started in Raleigh County as of tomorrow. Marsh Fork Elementary School is about 1 mile above Edwight on Route 3 going toward Beckley. These children now must face the prospect of another silo being built near the school. More dust, more toxic waste can only come from this great endeavor by Massey Energy, Inc. Wouldn’t it be a great thing to do if Massey Energy, Inc. would spend a few million dollars of the huge profit they have already made at Edwight, Hazy, Shumate’s Branch and the other mine sites, and build a school up Route 3 toward Beckley for the children at Marsh Fork Elementary School. Then the children could go to school with no fear of the dust, the sludge dam bursting, and killing them all. Come on Massey, build that school, and get praise from the people and the children on Little Coal River. In the mean time, may God keep His big hand of mercy upon the little children at Marsh Fork Elementary School.

  20. […] story on contaminated drinking water supplies. Protests continue against what critics say are WVDEP’s lax enforcement policies concerning the coal industry, and local citizens seek a federal takeover of the […]

  21. […] statements sound much more like Randy Huffman’s testimony to the U.S. Senate a year ago, in which the state’s top environmental regulator sounded more like someone whose main job […]

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