Coal Tattoo

NY Times: Blockbuster on coal and dirty water

There’s quite a buzz going around West Virginia — and rightly so — about the front-page New York Times story, “Clean Water Laws Neglected, at a Cost.”

The edition of the Times featured a four-column-wide photo at the top of 1A showing a seven-year-old West Virginia boy’s damaged teeth, linked by his dentists on the polluted drinking water his family  blames on the underground injection of coal slurry. The photo is here in the online edition of the story.

I was glad to see the Times make note of this fact about Ryan Massey, his mother Jennifer Hall-Massey and the family in question:

She and her husband, Charles, do not live in some remote corner of Appalachia. Charleston, the state capital, is less than 17 miles from her home.

Far too often, these kinds of coal-related stories paint the problems as something that’s happening in a far-away land, someplace none of us really needs to think about or be concerned with.

The Times story is part of a multi-part series the paper is doing about water quality issues. The previous story, Debating how much weed killer is safe in your water glass, was also written by reporter Charles Duhigg, and is worth giving a read.

Times staffers are some of the best computer-assisted reporters in the business, and that shows up in this story, with the nut graphs describing the national scope of lax enforcement of our nation’s clean water laws:

This pattern is not limited to West Virginia. Almost four decades ago, Congress passed the Clean Water Act to force polluters to disclose the toxins they dump into waterways and to give regulators the power to fine or jail offenders. States have passed pollution statutes of their own. But in recent years, violations of the Clean Water Act have risen steadily across the nation, an extensive review of water pollution records by The New York Times found.

In the last five years alone, chemical factories, manufacturing plants and other workplaces have violated water pollution laws more than half a million times. The violations range from failing to report emissions to dumping toxins at concentrations regulators say might contribute to cancer, birth defects and other illnesses.

However, the vast majority of those polluters have escaped punishment. State officials have repeatedly ignored obvious illegal dumping, and the Environmental Protection Agency, which can prosecute polluters when states fail to act, has often declined to intervene.

And the Times provided this nifty interactive graphic,  a sidebar on how to research the safety of your own water supply, and state-by-state data and regulatory agency responses to the problems identified by the newspaper.

Of course, news of slurry injection’s impacts on the community of Prenter (where the Massey family lives) comes as no surprise to regular readers of the The Charleston Gazette, Coal Tattoo or the AP dispatches by Vicki Smith (See here, here, here, here and here for previous coverage).

But the Times outlined some pretty interesting stuff all the same:

In the eight miles surrounding Mrs. Hall-Massey’s home, coal companies have injected more than 1.9 billion gallons of coal slurry and sludge into the ground since 2004, according to a review of thousands of state records. Millions more gallons have been dumped into lagoons.

These underground injections have contained chemicals at concentrations that pose serious health risks, and thousands of injections have violated state regulations and the Safe Drinking Water Act, according to reports sent to the state by companies themselves.

For instance, three coal companies — Loadout, Remington Coal and Pine Ridge, a subsidiary of Peabody Energy, one of the largest coal companies in the world — reported to state officials that 93 percent of the waste they injected near this community had illegal concentrations of chemicals including arsenic, lead, chromium, beryllium or nickel.

Sometimes those concentrations exceeded legal limits by as much as 1,000 percent. Those chemicals have been shown to contribute to cancer, organ failures and other diseases.

But those companies were never fined or punished for those illegal injections, according to state records. They were never even warned that their activities had been noticed.

The Times included in its story on posted on its Web site a partial response from Randy Huffman, Gov. Joe Manchin’s environmental protection secretary. The most interesting part was this:

It is important to note that if the close scrutiny given to our state had been given to others, it is likely that similar issues would have been found.

In fact, a chart that was included in the print edition (I couldn’t find it online) showed that West Virginia ranked 10th in the nation in terms of enforcement actions issued per 100 facilities out of compliance, with 28.

Of course, that doesn’t tell the whole story … We know that the WVDEP went for four or five years — maybe more — without even looking at the monthly pollution discharge reports that coal companies file.  WVDEP started doing so only after the federal EPA came into the state and won a record $20 million Clean Water Act settlement from Massey Energy. And since then, WVDEP has been entering into private settlements with coal operators, in a move environmental groups say is aimed at avoiding citizen lawsuits that might bring larger penalties and tougher compliance schedules.

The Times article also includes an interesting story about Huffman’s predecessor, Stephanie Timmermeyer, in which former WVDEP mining director Matt Crum alleges Timmermeyer fired her under orders from a state lawmaker with close ties to the coal industry after he tried to enforce the law:

Mining companies, worried about attracting Mr. Crum’s attention, began improving their waste disposal practices, executives from that period said. But they also began complaining to their friends in the state’s legislature, they recalled in interviews, and started a whisper campaign accusing Mr. Crum of vendettas against particular companies — though those same executives now admit they had no evidence for those claims.

In 2003, a new director, Stephanie Timmermeyer, was nominated to run the Department of Environmental Protection. One of West Virginia’s most powerful state lawmakers, Eustace Frederick, said she would be confirmed, but only if she agreed to fire Mr. Crum, according to several people who said they witnessed the conversation.

She was given the job and soon summoned Mr. Crum to her office. He was dismissed two weeks after his second child’s birth.

Finally, the story included this quote from Huffman:

The real test is, is our water clean? When the Clean Water Act was passed, this river that flows through our capital was very dirty. Thirty years later, it’s much cleaner because we’ve chosen priorities carefully.

Randy didn’t come out and quote the goal Congress set when it passed the Clean Water Act, so I’ll mention it here:

It is the national goal that the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters be eliminated by 1985.

In 2007, the most recent year for which data is available, polluters discharged nearly 3 million pounds of toxic chemicals into West Virginia’s rivers and streams.  And, according to WVDEP’s own data, only one-sixth of West Virginia’s waterways are clean enough to support their designated uses.