Coal Tattoo

WVDEP Dissent: Biologist says Huffman wrong on MTR

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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.