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.”
Now, 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.