Groups assert that West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection fails to protect people and the environment
Special to the Appalachian Chronicle
CHARLESTON. W.Va. – Seven local, regional and national groups filed a formal notice on March 17 of intent to sue the U.S. Office of Surface Mining (OSM) for failing to intervene on West Virginia’s lax oversight of mountaintop removal and other destructive surface coal mining – a state program that has, for decades, allowed the coal industry to ravage the environment, putting people at risk and destroy local communities, assert the groups.
The groups on the notice are the Coal River Mountain Watch, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Sierra Club.
According to the groups, the state’s chronically poor oversight has included a persistent failure to conduct inspections meant to protect people and the environment from coal companies that operate outside the law. They claim that out-of-control mountaintop removal coal mining is linked to epidemics of cancer, cardiovascular disease and birth defects in affected communities. West Virginia has also failed to undertake required assessments to ensure lakes, rivers and drinking-water wells aren’t harmed by mountaintop removal mining and other destructive surface coal mining practices.
“Citizens’ groups have been forced to demand federal enforcement because the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has failed to do its job,” said Vernon Haltom, executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch. “Our communities and health suffer because the state lets the mining industry get away with polluting at will.”
In June 2013, 18 organizations joined a legal petition to the Office of Surface Mining detailing the extensive mining oversight failures of West Virginia’s DEP. The federal agency has acknowledged that five of the claims have merit, but has failed to take action toward promulgating a federal program. Under the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, it is required to step in when a state fails to implement, enforce or maintain its program for overseeing surface mining.
“The situation here could not be more urgent,” said Vivian Stockman, project coordinator at the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. “Under West Virginia’s program, we’ve seen once vibrant streams die, devastating floods, and loved ones exposed to toxic blasting dust take ill. Mountaintop removal coal mining has destroyed communities and threatens to destroy more. We need OSM to take action now.”
The notice of intent details the state’s failure to complete mandatory inspections evaluating whether a mining operation is complying with the law.
“West Virginia’s watchdog on mountaintop removal coal mining is utterly failing to do its job. During one three month stretch in 2014, the state failed to conduct 171 required inspections,” said Lori Ann Burd, environmental health director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These chronic failures translate into serious harm on the ground, because without inspections, the people who live in the state have to rely on the mining industry to voluntarily report things like water-quality violations that threaten public health.”
Groups claim federal agency facilitates fracking for shale gas
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) and three other environmental groups based in other Appalachian states have joined forces to challenge the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for not properly informing the public regarding the construction of proposed natural gas pipelines throughout the region.
In a news release, the alliance stated, “The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is not informing the public about the big picture when it comes to natural gas infrastructure projects related to increased gas drilling in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations.”
The groups are concerned that the regional impacts to forests, watersheds, air quality, and wildlife are largely being ignored as FERC approves new gas pipelines and compressor stations across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. The groups contend that FERC’s rush to increase natural gas infrastructure incentivizes fracking for shale gas while stifling the development of renewable energy.
“Natural gas is not a bridge fuel but an anchor keeping us stuck in the past,” said Ryan Talbott, executive director of the Allegheny Defense Project. “If we want to achieve meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions we need to get beyond all fossil fuels, including natural gas. We will never get to a clean energy future as long as FERC keeps incentivizing more fracking for shale gas through these infrastructure expansions.”
In Pennsylvania, which has already seen a dramatic increase in pipeline construction in recent years, there are several large pipeline projects on the horizon, including the Atlantic Sunrise Project and the PennEast Pipeline Project, which combined would add nearly 300 hundred miles of large-diameter pipeline across Pennsylvania.
In neighboring Ohio, there are concerns that what has already occurred in Pennsylvania is coming to the Buckeye State. There are several new large-diameter pipelines proposed in Ohio, including the Rover, NEXUS, and Leach Xpress pipelines. Combined, these projects would add over 1,000 miles of gas pipeline in Ohio and neighboring states.
“Here in Ohio we have been shocked by the sheer immensity of these large pipeline projects intended to transport fracked gas to ‘markets,’ including export markets,” said Lea Harper, managing director of the FreshWater Accountability Project. “We are glad to be part of the growing movement to hold FERC accountable for the long-term impacts caused by the unconventional shale gas drilling industry, contributing to the destruction of ecosystems, negatively impacting property values, creating public health and safety threats and exacerbating global climate change through the proliferation of fracking and its infrastructure, including compressor stations, pipelines, and export facilities.”
According to OVEC, multiple pipeline projects are also threatening West Virginia’s forests and watersheds, including the Ohio Valley Connector, Mountain Valley, and Atlantic Coast pipelines. Combined, these pipelines would add over 800 miles of pipeline from Ohio to North Carolina.
“All signs point to the urgent need for West Virginia and the world to accelerate our shift to truly cleaner renewable energy,” said Vivian Stockman, project coordinator for OVEC. “If FERC continues greenlighting more pipelines, then it is greenlighting more deep shale gas fracking activities. That means more reeling communities subject to dangerous heavy truck traffic, more poisoned water and air, more noise and light pollution, lowered property values and more risks of deadly explosions. FERC is standing in the way and should step aside: no more enabling the extreme extraction of deep shale gas.”
OVEC is also concerned about the impacts that pipelines such as the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline will have on public lands. “On their way to the East Coast, the proposed pipelines would cross numerous mountain streams and cut huge swaths through some of our state’s wildest and steepest terrain in the Monongahela National Forest,” Stockman said. “Once the pipelines are built, they are likely to induce even more fracking and, therefore, cause even more fragmentation of wildlife habitat.”
In Virginia, where the U.S. Forest Service recently banned new leases for fracking in the George Washington National Forest, Ernie Reed, president of Wild Virginia, is concerned about pipeline construction on Virginia’s other national forest, the Jefferson National Forest. The Mountain Valley pipeline will directly impact the Jefferson National Forest and the Appalachian Trail in southwestern Virginia. In addition to the Mountain Valley pipeline, the Atlantic Coast pipeline would impact hundreds of miles in Virginia.
“These pipelines serve no public benefit as all current and proposed users are currently served by existing pipelines,” said Reed. “FERC cannot ignore that these pipelines will massively increase gas extraction in the shalefields of West Virginia and provide huge volumes of natural gas for export.”
The groups claim that FERC routinely ignores the cumulative environmental impacts of all of this pipeline construction by considering each proposal in a vacuum and ignoring the regional impacts, including the impacts of related fracking for shale gas. In a recent presentation to the Maine Natural Gas Conference in October 2014, FERC highlighted dozens of planned and pending pipeline projects in the northeast and mid-Atlantic regions of the country. The presentation also highlighted numerous projects intended to export natural gas to foreign markets.
In a recent appearance at the National Press Club, FERC Chairman Cheryl LaFleur defended the agency’s work with the gas industry to expand pipeline infrastructure, claiming “the nation is going to have to grapple with our acceptance of gas generation and gas pipelines.” According to Terry Lodge, an attorney representing FreshWater Accountability Project and Neighbors Against NEXUS, this reveals FERC’s bias in favor of more gas infrastructure and raises concerns about how closely the agency considers impacts to the environmental and local communities.
“FERC is only supposed to approve a new pipeline if it determines that it is in the public interest,” Lodge said. “Part of that determination requires considering effects to the environment and communities, and there clearly are many. But if FERC has already determined up front that the public is ‘just going to have to accept more pipelines,’ it can’t be trusted to rigorously evaluate impacts those effects. We may have to routinely call upon FERC commissioners to disqualify themselves from voting on the key decisions the agency is supposed to make.”
The alliance released several documents upon which this article is based. They can be accessed here.