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WVDEP’s Huffman: ‘We are not health experts’

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WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman, right, confers with then-Gov. Joe Manchin and agency lawyer Ben Bailey. Gazette file photo.

Say what you want about Randy Huffman, secretary of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection … one thing that I’ve noticed is that if you pay attention, some fascinating stuff comes out of his mouth about the strengths — and weaknesses — of his own agency. Randy usually tells you what he thinks (see here, here and here).

I was reminded of that yesterday, as I listened to the webcast of a legislative interim committee meeting about legislation to improve regulation of Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling.

Lawmakers were discussing giving WVDEP authority to set tighter limits on how close drilling sites could be to homes, depending on agency findings about the potential effects on public health of nearby residents.  They asked Randy what he thought of the language. Randy explained that lots of people — everyone from industry to residents to the media, I guess — make demands on WVDEP, wanting the agency to say if some particular activity affects human health.  Randy explained why WVDEP is often terribly uncomfortable, and probably ill-suited — to make such determinations:

We’re are not health experts … I don’t have anyone with any expertise on how these things affect human health.

But isn’t an understanding of impacts of industrial activity on public health more and more important, especially given the growing body of science linking living near mountaintop removal mining with increased rates of illnesses and deaths?

Randy noted his belief that dealing with strictly health impact issues is more rightly the job of the Bureau for Public Health, part of the state Department of Health and Human Resources.

But one lawmaker pointed out that, in fact, West Virginia law sets out as one WVDEP’s main jobs:

… To protect human health and safety …