Sustained Outrage

We ran a story on the front page of Sunday’s print edition that described a major change in West Virginia’s water quality standards that’s been proposed by the state Department of Environmental Protection. Here’s the way we started the story:

200dep_sign1Department of Environmental Protection officials are proposing water quality rule changes that would allow more cancer-causing chemicals to be discharged into West Virginia rivers and streams and could make it somewhat easier for industry to have drinking water protections removed for some state waterways.

Agency officials say the changes are DEP’s response to a legislative mandate to re-examine how West Virginia decides which state streams will be designated as potential drinking water sources and to make the stream-flow figures used for carcinogen limits more closely align with long-term exposure risks and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommendations.

But environmental groups are opposing the DEP proposals, one of which was rejected after being dubbed the “Cancer Creek” bill when it was the subject of a heated legislative battle more than two decades ago.

That proposal, which mirrors one frequently lobbied for by state industry groups, would change the stream flows used in pollution limit calculations from one using low-flow conditions to one using average flow — a move that agency officials acknowledge allows greater levels of cancer-causing chemicals.

As the story explains, the WVDEP proposal would calculate water pollution limits for cancer-causing chemicals based on an average flow figure — called the “harmonic mean” — rather than the state’s current practice of using a low-flow figure. The state currently uses a flow referred to as “7Q10,” which is the lowest seven-day consecutive flow that occurs at least once every 10 years.

You can read the whole story online here, but if you’re wondering what the real impact of the proposal would be, it’s hard to tell, at least from what WVDEP officials are saying at this point:

One thing that DEP officials acknowledge is that the switch to harmonic mean would result in permit limits that allow more cancer-causing chemicals to be discharged into West Virginia’s streams. How much more? Of what chemicals and in what rivers or streams?

DEP officials say they don’t know. A statewide review to answer those kinds of questions hasn’t been done.

Digging through public comments and agency documents about one of the last times that the state considered a switch to harmonic mean, though, might help provide some context for the proposal’s impact.

Back in 2003, the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation — which came up with the name “cancer creek” when it fought this sort of a change as part of its opposition to the proposed Mason County pulp mill in the early 1990s — submitted this set of comments when the WVDEP was recommending a change to harmonic mean.

In the comments, Carpenter Environmental Associates, a consulting firm for the ACT Foundation, calculated the difference in allowable cancer-causing discharges under harmonic mean for the Ohio, Kanawha and Greenbrier rivers, to provide an example for waterways with large, medium and small flows. Their comments included this chart, based on their calculations:

The consulting firm explained:

Each ratio developed above represents the factor by which the quantity of carcinogens discharged to West Virginia’s waters will be increased if the harmonic mean flow is used as the design flow rather than the 7Q10. Changing the regulations from 7Q10 to harmonic mean flow would result in allowing 5.4 to 7.6 times more carcinogens being discharged into the river segments studied. Similar analysis must be performed for other river segments in West Virginia to determine the factor by which allowable discharges of carcinogens would be increased in each river.

A public hearing on the water rule change proposals is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at the DEP headquarters in Kanawha City.