Coal Tattoo

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It wasn’t really that long ago that WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman was sounding like a pretty reasonable guy … Back in January, he announced that his agency was suspending permitting of valley fills and writing its own new policies to try to reduce the water quality impacts from strip mining.

At the time, Randy told me:

If EPA’s not going to give us answers, we need to get our own. We need to get our own posture on this, and the end result is going to be a reduction in the size and scope of these operations.

And, in a rare moment for a West Virginia government leader, Randy was pretty honest about what the impacts from mining really are and what should be done about it:

Our opposition [to EPA’s permit reviews] has been more about the process than it has been about the science. There is a lot of validity to the concerns about the downstream impacts.

I think that’s the change in direction everyone is going to have to make to meet the downstream water quality requirements. I don’t see any choice but to reduce the impacts.

Well, four months went by, and WVDEP hadn’t released any new policies, rules or water quality guidelines.  EPA went ahead with its own actions, proposing a tough guideline for conductivity, aimed at addressing increasing concerns about what mountaintop removal is doing to water quality downstream. As far as I know, WVDEP still hasn’t publicly released any new rules itself, though Randy told me last week that they were going to do so sometime soon.

But gosh, what do we have today, in a report from Vicki Smith of The Associated Press? Check it out:

West Virginia’s top environmental official says surface-mine permitting in his state is getting tougher federal scrutiny than in any of the other five states the Environmental Protection Agency has targeted, and the continuing conflict over new standards will likely end up in litigation.

“We are either going to be a plaintiff, a defendant or an intervener,” Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman told The Associated Press. “I can’t predict right now which one we’ll be.”

Several DEP employees are attending a meeting with EPA staff in Pittsburgh on Wednesday and Thursday over new water-quality standards imposed April 1 on six states: West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and Tennessee. Huffman argues the standards are not only unattainable, but also being unfairly enforced.

“They are wrong on a lot of levels,” Huffman said of federal regulators. “… If what EPA is doing is illegal, they will pay the price.”

Huffman said his staff will “do more listening and asking questions than talking” to EPA officials. “I can promise you, there will be much that will be said in this two-day meeting that will be held against them later.”

Re-read a couple of those quotes:

If what EPA is doing is illegal, they will pay the price.

I can promise you, there will be much that will be said in this two-day meeting that will be held against them later.

What do we not see in these quotes? Any recognition at all from the Manchin administration’s top environmental regulator of the overwhelming science showing that mountaintop removal is having pervasive and irreversible impacts on the environment and that tougher rules are needed to curb those effects.

These 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 was to promote the coal industry. A few examples of his remarks in that testimony:

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.

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.

What happened to the realization from WVDEP that mining is having impacts that current regulations don’t address, and to the state’s efforts to try to tackle those impacts?

I asked Randy about that this morning, and he said WVDEP staffers continue to work on the project, that it’s complicated and is taking longer than he would have liked. “We’re working our tails off on it, but it is just hard,” he said.

Also, Randy said he doesn’t think he said some of the things Vicki quoted him as saying, in particular that bit about EPA “paying the price” or the part about what EPA says in this week’s meetings being “held against them later.” Randy told me:

I’m obviously preparing to cross swords with EPA. I’ve made no secret about that for more than a year. But I did not say that they will pay the price. There’s not a chance I’m going to do that, because I still have to work with EPA.

Regardless, is it any wonder that that EPA officials sometimes say things like this:

The notion of ‘clarity’ invoked by some West Virginia officials and industry representatives has too often meant letting coal companies do as they please, with little or no consideration for the harmful impacts on Americans living in coal country.

UPDATED:

DEP spokeswoman Kathy Cosco just called me back to say that, in fact, Randy did say the things quoted in Vicki’s story … and Randy was calling EPA this afternoon to apologize.

Updated:

Randy Huffman issued this statement about his apology to EPA —

“It is easy to lose focus in this debate that the purpose of all of our efforts is the protection of the state’s water quality. Regardless of what I say about the process, I have not forgotten that and I will not forget it.”