Coal Tattoo

I don’t know if the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection was hoping for a big media splash last week when it issued its new water quality guidance for implementing the state’s narrative water quality standard.

But I was surprised at WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman’s response to what was really my main question about the agency’s guidance: Will this guidance reduce the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal?

When I asked Randy about that last week, I got silence for what was kind of an uncomfortable period of time. I didn’t want to make too much of that … nothing wrong with a public official measuring their words when answering important questions.

But then Randy answered me this way:

I  believe it will. I’m having a hard time. When you ask that question, there is a presumption that the impacts are high and this will being them down. Regardless of what the impacts are now, I believe this will reduce those impacts.

OK … now, first, if you missed it, I tried to explain the WVDEP’s guidance in a print story for the Gazette here, and you can read the guidance and public comments about it on the WVDEP Web site here.

But I was puzzled because I would have thought Randy could have predicted my question. And to a large extent, Randy and others at WVDEP had given me and the public every reason — at least in their words —  to believe they were out to reduce impacts from mountaintop removal.

Let’s go back a bit so I can explain. Remember when Randy testified before the U.S. Senate in June 2009 and said this about mountaintop removal:

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.

That was the same Senate committee hearing where Randy said:

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.

That testimony prompted a memo from a WVDEP biologist who disputed the WVDEP Secretary’s description of what the state agency’s science shows regarding mountaintop removal’s impacts:

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 also that my coverage of that WVDEP biologist prompt a statement of protest from the agency that I had gotten it all wrong …

The Gazette article suggests that the Secretary misled Congress about the damage being done by mountaintop mining, and cites an internal memorandum written by Wood. However, the actual testimony addresses the changes to the permitting protocol agreements entered into by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA and the DEP, which outlined what needed to be included to allow for issuance of the various permits required.

I bring all this up again not to re-argue the issue with WVDEP, but to make sure readers know the background of this situation … it wasn’t too long after this all occurred that WVDEP announced it was going to write its own guidance for the narrative water quality standard, with Randy Huffman saying at the time:

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.

Mining opponents didn’t give WVDEP or Randy Huffman much credit for any of this, but I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, with a healthy dose of journalistic skepticism. In a blog post titled, “WVDEP fill policy: Game changer or more of the same?” I wrote:

Maybe the state will issue some incredibly weak guidance, in the hopes of avoiding any tougher language from EPA to define that standard or to take action about downstream pollution problems like selenium and increased conductivity.

But what if Randy Huffman and his staff at WVDEP are taking some advice from U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, and trying to “embrace the future“?

One thing is for sure, the fact that EPA marched in and pushed Patriot Coal to cut the stream impacts in half — and still mine almost all of its coal — at the Hobet 45 mountaintop removal mine sure showed the WVDEP and the Army Corps of Engineers haven’t done their jobs in seeing that environmental effects of mining are minimized. Maybe Randy and his staff don’t want to see that happen again, and are going to really take on the job of changing things

As Randy Huffman told me:

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.

Randy emphasized in our discussions back then:

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.

And then, not long after the announcement, WVDEP mining and reclamation director Tom Clarke told the West Virginia Coal Association:

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.

So here we are eight months later, and WVDEP issues its guidance. The agency’s news release says:

The goals of the document are to advance water quality and assure that surface mining operations are conducted in ways that protect the narrative water quality standards.

But it also reads like another move in WVDEP’s persistent fight to get the Obama EPA to back off, with Randy Huffman saying “We trust that EPA will give deference to West Virginia’s guidance document” and complaining about how federal officials (those charged with enforcement the Clean Water Act) “inserted” themselves into the state’s business.

And the release quoted Randy:

This document will result in changes that are markedly different from how mining has been conducted for the last 30 years.

That’s really the line that prompted my question to Randy … WVDEP was saying this guidance would “result in changes,” but it doesn’t really say what those changes — at least on the ground — would be. So I asked, and again, here’s what Randy had to say:

I believe it will. I’m having a hard time. When you ask that question, there is a presumption that the impacts are high and this will being them down. Regardless of what the impacts are now, I believe this will reduce those impacts.