Coal Tattoo

WVDEP stalling on selenium … again?

If you subscribe to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s public notice e-mail system, you just never know what interesting stuff is going to show up in your inbox.

Starting a few weeks ago, the notices started announcing public comment periods on requests from various coal companies to extend their deadline for stopping violations of the state’s water quality standards for toxic selenium … Riverside Energy, Litwar Processing, Independence Coal. There was a whole parade of them.

Mine operators are understandably hoping to take advantage of the loophole given them last year by lawmakers, allowing WVDEP to extend these compliance deadlines another two years, to July 1, 2012.

But WVDEP officials are now saying these public notices — I counted more than a dozen of them — went out “prematurely,” at least according to Tom Clarke, director of the agency’s Division of Mining and Reclamation. According to Tom:

There are several applications pending before the DEP at this time seeking extensions of selenium compliance schedules.  None have been granted.  Some of the applications may be denied. Even on applications that the DEP believes should be granted, it will not be in a position to act until after draft permits are advertised for public comment and USEPA has had an opportunity for comment as well.  It is possible that some of the agency’s permitting personnel have prematurely authorized applicants to advertise draft permits on this subject for public comment in cases where an agency decision to do this has yet to be made.

Remember that the WVDEP has been bending over backward to give the coal industry time to stop its selenium pollution (see previous posts here, here and here, among others) — despite a warning from a leading selenium expert that mining-related selenium pollution had pushed one West Virginia watershed to the brink of a major toxic event.

Currently, many coal operators around the state are facing a deadline next month to stop their selenium violations.  And WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman told me yesterday his agency was going to be “holding a pretty tough line on that.”

But, lawmakers did speak to the issue, Randy told me — even if WVDEP opposed the legislation allowing two-year extensions. Randy said WVDEP staff will be looking on a permit-by-permit basis at whether mine operators have spent money and effort to try to end their violations, and still just need more time to perfect treatment technologies.

Keep an eye on this one, and take a look at this video to watch what Randy Huffman said last year regarding giving the coal industry beyond April 2010 to clean up its selenium problems (This quote comes about a minute into the West Virginia Public Broadcasting video):

There is a lot of work going on right now, a lot of research going on right now. And I hope for the sake of the streams and the river and for the sake of the coal companies that they are able to meet that deadline in April 2010, because that’s when we intend to enforce the law on that.