Coal Tattoo

Larry Messina over at The Associated Press has the first cut of a story out today about a new legislative audit looking at the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s performance meeting inspection and permit review targets:

West Virginia mine regulators are failing to meet their agency’s goals for timely inspections and permits … Legislative auditors blame turnover and a relatively high number of vacancies for the delays at the Division of Mining and Reclamation.

And surprise, surprise, guess who WVDEP is blaming:

But division Director Thomas Clarke faults heightened scrutiny by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency since President Barack Obama took office in 2009.

And it’s also the public’s fault, for asking Clarke for so much information:

He also cites a surge in Freedom of Information Act requests. His office counted 318 requests in 2008, 708 requests in 2011 and 431 this year as of June.

The report by the West Virginia Legislative Auditor’s Performance Evaluation and Research Division is available online here, and you can read it for yourself. But there are some things worth keeping in mind when you do:

— First, the audit examines whether WVDEP meets its own goals for making decisions on mining and water pollution permit applications for coal operations within 12 months, and does not address the more important issue of the quality of these permit reviews and the decisions the agency makes. That’s a much more complicated matter, but one worth discussing. Keep in mind that WVDEP is the agency that issued all of the strip-mining permits that scientists say have caused “pervasive and irreversible” damage to the state’s environment, and that an increasing body of science is linking to higher risks of serious public health damage, including birth defects and cancer.

— Next, the notion that strip mines will all be inspected by WVDEP at least once per month is not some made-up agency goal. It’s the law. State code is very clear on this point, as is the federal Surface Mining Act. For the most recent year available, the state’s completion rate dropped to 82 percent.

— The legislative auditors acknowledged that EPA’s more rigorous reviews of mining permits could be contributing to WVDEP’s delays in making permit decisions. But it’s difficult to understand exactly how EPA’s oversight — or additional FOIA requests from the public, for that matter — have anything at all to do with the state not completing its mandated strip-mine inspections.

— Finally, despite WVDEP’s bluster about EPA, the real issue here is almost certainly the state’s continued staffing problems.  Despite the constant attacks on WVDEP, this agency is made up of lots of good, hardworking public servants — there just aren’t nearly enough of them to get the job done sometimes. And as with the long-standing shortage of oil and gas drilling inspectors, WVDEP has been unable to fix this problem. (Keep in mind that, while vital services like strip-mine inspections go undone, corporate tax cuts in our state continue).

Staffing problems are one of the issues that the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement has warned WVDEP about over and over. OSM’s most recent report observed:

Although the State increased it hiring efforts, the number of vacancies remained about the same. Seventy percent of the vacancies are in permitting and inspection and enforcement.

Interestingly, the state audit report indicates that the number of vacancies among technical positions in the state’s permitting division was down last year to 7, compared to 10 in 2010. But in mine inspections, the number of vacancies doubled, from 5 to 10 during that same period.

Finally, not for nothing, but the legislative audit also recommends improvements for WVDEP’s mining and reclamation website. Now, there’s a ton of information already on this particular state agency site, and generally I find it more helpful than many other state sites. But if FOIA requests are indeed a big problem for WVDEP, the agency might try putting together lists of the most-FOIA’d information and posting it online. For example, over at DEP’s oil and gas division, rather than posting new horizontal well permit applications online, they want to charge the public $15 for a copy of any permit they want to look at, or require citizens to travel to a DEP office to view the information. Why not just post it all online?