Coal Tattoo

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If you happened to miss our story about West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman’s comments about the mountaintop removal health studies, you should check it out:

West Virginia’s top environmental regulator says studies that have found residents near mountaintop removal coal-mining operations face increased risks of serious illnesses and premature death deserve to be carefully examined by state and federal officials.

“I think it is something that is worthy of a closer look,” said Randy Huffman, secretary of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. “It is something that is worthy of consideration. The evidence that is being stated in some of the studies, that needs to be considered.”

secretary-randy-huffman-portrait_small2Now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Randy Huffman in no way said that DEP is launching some new effort to take a comprehensive look at the growing list of studies linking living near mountaintop removal to greater risk of serious illnesses and premature death.  And note the comment from DEP communications director Kelley Gillenwater that “there is currently no conclusive data that would result in changes to the permit application review process.”

Moreover, if what the good folks organizing “The People’s Foot” event on Monday are looking for is an announcement that Randy Huffman has ordered his Division of Mining and Reclamation to stop issuing new mountaintop removal permits effective immediately … well, that’s just not going to happen. Don’t look for Randy to be grabbing a sign and joining the folks protesting outside his agency’s headquarters next week.

But given the political climate in West Virginia right now, it’s probably about right to say that Randy’s comments to me this week are both a big shift and a baby step. It’s a huge thing for someone in a position of authority — someone who works for a very pro-coal governor — to even acknowledge that these studies exist, let alone to go on the record right before a big protest as saying that the science deserves a closer look. It’s a baby step because, given the low bar in West Virginia for acknowledging any science that might in any way reflect negatively on coal, Randy’s comments are a long, long way from any real action on this issue.

So, what happens now?

This was well played by Randy. It’s pretty tough for the protesters to complain that DEP won’t acknowledge the studies when the secretary of the agency just did so. This means that the real action on Monday won’t be at the protest, but in the meeting afterward, when citizen groups will have a chance to make their case to some of Randy’s staff and suggest some path forward.

Over the past few months, there have been interesting dynamics with Randy Huffman and his DEP. Randy proposed a water quality rule change that makes it a goal that we clean up the Kanawha River, so maybe it can be a secondary drinking source for Charleston and surrounding communities.  When it became clear various powerful industry groups — folks that certainly have the ear of Randy’s boss — were going to use that proposal as a vehicle for gutting statewide drinking water protections, Randy was a remarkably strong voice against the state heading in that direction.  DEP’s work is a major reason that water quality rule appears headed toward passage without the language industry wanted.

But let’s not forget that another DEP proposal in that same rules bill aims to erode the ability of citizens to bring suits against mine operators over water quality violations. Or that DEP, after working very hard for many months for strong implementation of last year’s chemical tank safety bill, has come out fully supportive of legislation that greatly rolls back that law, leaving thousands of tanks out of the new standards.

Shouldn’t West Virginia’s environmental community be able to disagree with DEP about some things, and work with the agency on others? Randy Huffman has opened the door here for a better discussion about these very important studies about mountaintop removal’s impacts. It’s up to the citizens to walk through it, perhaps with a concrete proposal for exactly how this “closer look” at the health studies could work. Then the burden will be back on Randy, to help make sure it actually happens.