Coal Tattoo

WVDEP on permits: ‘Unlikely to ever be the same’

Today’s big summit between federal regulators and West Virginia coal operators was supposed to be a chance for the Obama administration to explain its expectations for strip-mining permits to the industry.

tom-clarke2.jpgBut among the more interesting comments came from Tom Clarke, director of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, who warned more than 100 industry officials gathered at the Charleston Civic Center this morning:

Things are unlikely to ever be the same. We don’t know quite where things are going to end up, but you can be assured in the future the surface mines that are permitted will be smaller.

This statement less than a week after Clarke’s boss, WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman announced his agency would essentially stop processing new valley fill permits until it comes up with a more specific — and rigorous — guidance for defining what sorts of water quality impacts are allowed.

Clarke joined Ginger Mullins of the Corps and Jeff Lapp of EPA at the podium for the workshop. The event was planned as a private meeting for industry, but after word of it was made public some other folks (myself included) showed up.

Given the dire situation the coal industry would have the public believe exists regarding permits — and the attacks on the Obama administration by coal and its political supporters — I was surprised there were hardly any questions from the roughly 100 industry officials who attended. These folks keep demanding more information from EPA about what it expects to be in Clean Water Act permits, but when they get agency officials in a room to answer such questions, they were oddly silent.

Among the highlights of the discussion:

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— Mullins said the Corps’ Huntington District plans to start having meetings on the second Tuesday of every month to discuss permit issues with specific companies. She explained:

We are going to have early meetings with all the coal companies on new projects, before the mining plans are made, at the earliest point … The goal at the meeting is that when you leave, you will know what is required.

One wonders, though, if the Corps — or any other federal or state agency — plans monthly meetings with people who live near these mining operations, or with outside environmental experts who can talk about societal values other than getting permits approved and coal moving.

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— Lapp  said that EPA is going to be looking closely to ensure that mining permits meet the Clean Water Act’s requirement that stream impacts be minimized and that waters not be “significantly degraded.” He explained:

Are there alternative disposal areas? Can you avoid putting fill and overburden in streams?

Lapp said EPA will also be requiring stronger pollution monitoring plans, and pushing for “sequencing” of valley fill approvals — through which one or two fills might be approved, and further fill authorizations at the same site dependent upon the results of downstream monitoring of the initially approved fills. Lapp said EPA knows this is a change, and may not be one that the industry particularly likes:

That may not be a palatable situation from your perspective, but from the agency’s perspective, I need to push back a little bit … Some of the things we’re looking for may not blend or mesh with what you originally received permits for.

— Finally, it was interesting that the Obama administration — while it certainly didn’t invite citizen groups to attend or speak at the event — essentially gave Jason Bostic of the West Virginia Coal Association the last word, allowing him to respond once the three government speakers were done. Here’s some video of Jason’s comments: