Tag Archives: West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection

Citizens Encouraged to Request Public Hearings about MVP

West Virginia Department of Environment Protection needs to hear more voices

By John W. Cobb, Jr.

IRELAND, W.Va. – With 11 counties in West Virginia projected to be affected by the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) route should it receive approval, voices from one end of the state to the other must be heard. The West Virginia Department of Environment Protection (WVDEP) needs to hear from citizens while there is still time. The potential impacts to water supplies (aquifers), streams, wetlands and rivers is significant; therefore citizens need to write the WVDEP to request public hearings in the affected counties.

So far, such requests are working.


Proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline route (in green). Note that it runs from near the Pennsylvania and Ohio state lines in the north to the Virginia state line in the south. Courtesy: FracCheckWV

The WVDEP Division of Water and Waste Management (DWWM) will be extending the public comment period on the State 401 Water Quality Certification for the proposed MVP project until further notice. It takes only a few minutes to send them a letter or email requesting a public hearing in your county so you can learn and get answers to your concerns.

Originally, the public comment period, which is required under state regulation 47CSR5A, would have ended next week, but because of widespread public interest in the proposed project, DWWM will be scheduling public hearings to discuss certification of the proposed project. Information about the dates and locations of those hearings will be made public as soon as plans are finalized.

The WVDEP says they will likely prioritize holding public hearings based on the counties generating the most comments. For now, those are from Greenbrier, Monroe and Summers counties. We need more folks along the MVP Route to respond now. We need to help get the word out to folks further up along the proposed route, including Wetzel, Doddridge, Harrison, Lewis, Braxton, Webster, Nicholas, and Fayette counties. Every citizen along the route needs reasonable access to public hearings. By writing the WVDEP, it will increase the chance that no citizen will be left out.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline is a $3.5 billion project, developed by EQT Corp., and it involves a 42-inch-diameter pipeline that would run 301 miles south from the Equitrans L.P. transmission system near the MarkWest Energy Mobley Complex in Wetzel County to a Transcontinental Gas Pipeline Co. compressor station in Pittsylvania County, Virginia. This project is one of multiple pipeline projects currently under review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) one of the other projects is the Atlantic Coast Pipeline that will run somewhat parallel and north of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

When issuing certification, DWWM’s 401 Certification Program may consider the proposed activity’s impact on water resources, fish and wildlife, recreation, critical habitats, wetlands and other natural resources. In its 401 certification application, EQT anticipates that the MVP project will have temporary impacts to approximately 49,892 linear feet of streams and 18.9 acres of wetlands and permanent impacts to approximately 3,125 linear feet of streams and 10 acres of wetlands within the Mountain State.

Comments and information relating to the certification should be emailed to DEP.comments@wv.gov, with “MVP 401 Certification” in the subject line or mailed to:

West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Water and Waste Management

401 Certification Program

601 57th Street SE

Charleston, WV  25304

Responding now with a request for a public hearing in your county will give you and your neighbors a chance to express your concerns to the West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection.

(C) John W. Cobb, Jr., 2016. Mr. Cobb writes from his home in Ireland, W.Va.

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Note: The original version of this article listed 12 counties. The correct number is 11. We regret the error.


West Virginia’s Top Story in 2015: People and Land under Assault

Public health, environment and property rights under siege from crony capitalism; people respond vigorously, despite odds

 By Michael M. Barrick

BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. – While the fossil fuel extraction industry has dominated West Virginia’s political system, economy and communities since it became a state in 1863, the assault upon public health, the environment and property rights in 2015 by corporations and the Mountain State’s legislature was historic. Not since United States senators were appointed by legislatures, in the days when corporate robber barons owned the coal fields, the railroads and the politicians, and efforts to unionize coal miners were met with government-sanctioned violence, has there been such a blitzkrieg of shenanigans and skullduggery unleashed upon the state’s citizens.

Yet, the people have responded energetically. Easily outgunned by corporations, outspent by PACs, and surrounded by apathetic neighbors possessing a sense of inevitability that the energy industry will have its way in West Virginia, many citizens and groups have fought the attack vigorously and widely. The events of 2015 affecting the ecology of West Virginia is about far more than policy, it is about people – about those people making a difference, whether for well or ill.

While corporate interests and most of the state’s mainstream media promote a continued reliance upon what is essentially a bust-and-boom economy, more and more voices standing in opposition to the status quo are being heard. With solid evidence of harm to public health, damage to the environment and abuse of eminent domain from the industry – particularly through fracking and mountaintop removal – more people are joining forces to hold government, industry and even the church accountable.

These stories are not necessarily listed in chronological order and are not offered as a ranking of importance. Instead, it is an attempt to assess the whole year much as one would look at a quilt after it has been completed.

The top stories                                                    

  • The “People’s Capitol” no more
  • Influence of religion a mix of the hopeful and disturbing
  • Mediocrity at West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection
  • Eminent domain abuse
  • Public health threats
  • Environmental degradation
  • The people respond
  • The Don Blankenship trial
  • Poor and biased press coverage


The “People’s Capitol” no more

The gold-domed state capitol along the Kanawha River in Charleston is known as “The People’s Capitol” because of its openness to the people. While that is changing physically this year as security officials add metal detectors and other security steps, the event that really denied the people access to their government was the takeover of the legislature by the Republican Party. Not that the GOP has a patent on arrogance. The Democrats had grown entirely too comfortable after more than 80 years of control. Their arrogance was on display for all to see. All one had to do was visit the offices of the legislators before the GOP takeover. The Democrats had the largest offices and those in special authority – such as the speaker – had not only their titles but names affixed to the doors. As I walked through the capitol on a snowy February day in 2014 just a few weeks after the Elk River spill, I was pleased with how many legislators made themselves accessible; more than a few seemed genuinely interested in serving the people. However, the display of arrogance on the office doors by the party’s leadership was disturbing. It was clear proof that the lure of power had seduced them to promote themselves, not serve the people.

So, in a sense, the Democrats got what they deserved in November 2014. Unfortunately, beginning in January 2015, so did the people of West Virginia. Why people vote against their own interests is beyond my comprehension. For instance, coal miners voted for the very people who protect men like Massey Energy’s Donald Blankenship (more about him later) and are doing all they can to destroy the United Mine Workers (UMW).

Additionally, the GOP is pushing for “Forced Pooling” legislation that would rob landowners of their most basic rights. That issue died in the legislature on a tie vote in committee last year and is a legislative priority for the GOP this year when the West Virginia legislature convenes on Jan. 13. Forced pooling allows the gas industry to force landowners to allow gas companies to access the gas under their land even if the landowner doesn’t agree to it so long as a certain percentage of their neighbors have agreed to sell. And, despite the devastation done by the Elk River spill in 2014, the Republican-led legislature rolled back vital provisions of the West Virginia Storage Tank Law. This led to weakened oversite, restrictions on public access to hazardous chemical information, and loopholes which severely undermine the stated intent of the law. (Read the full story here).


Influence of religion a mix of the hopeful and disturbing

In West Virginia, approximately three out of four people identify themselves as Protestant; only seven percent are Catholic. As with political parties, these two major Christian sects hold quite disparate views on ecological issues; indeed, within each denomination, congregation and parish, one can find division about what the faith teaches regarding environmental stewardship.

Evangelicals and fundamentalists generally hold a “dominion” theory of stewardship. It is not only reflected in sermons, but is referenced by energy industry officials as justification for their attacks upon public health and the environment. Indeed, a leading energy industry executive shared that view here in Bridgeport in March. Executive Director Corky DeMarco of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association said, “God didn’t want us to be farmers, or this place would look like Kansas. God put us here in these mountains that are 450 million years old with the best coal in the world and the most natural gas in the world. And we have a responsibility, and I think companies like Dominion and others have seized on the opportunities that these mountains have provided and will continue to do this.” (Read the full story here).

Yet, Allen Johnson of Dunmore, who leads the evangelical organization Christians for the Mountains, took several other evangelicals and reporters to Kayford Mountain, West Virginia’s most infamous mountaintop removal site. As a result of this effort, national publications noted that some evangelicals are serious about creation care. (You can read articles here and here). Another, not available online, was published by the conservative Christian World magazine based in Asheville, N.C. Explaining the outreach, Johnson said, “It’s a lot easier to preach to the choir, so to speak, than to step across the divide, but that is what is needed in our polarized culture – build trust, tell stories, show, listen, find common ground somewhere.”

Catholics, however, have become accustomed to their clergy – in particular the bishop – to be a prophetic voice for the land and its people. Indeed, the West Virginia-based Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) has published two pastoral letters by the Catholic bishops of Appalachia – “This Land is Home to Me” in 1975 and “At Home in the Web of Life” in 1995. Both of these letters were signed by the Roman Catholic bishops of the region. So, for the last 40 years, the Catholic laity has become accustomed to its leaders standing up for the poor. Not in 2015 though. Instead, the CCA felt compelled to challenge West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield – as well as other Appalachian Catholic bishops – for not supporting the pope strongly enough when the Vatican released the pope’s ecological encyclical in the spring. (Read more here and here).

Indeed, in December, the CCA published what it characterized as a people’s pastoral. It explained, “For this third letter, called a ‘People’s Pastoral,’ the planning team did not seek the signatures of the region’s bishops, but rather sought to lift up the authority of the people, their stories, and earth itself as an expression of the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching of the ‘preferential option for the poor.’” (Read more here).

In short, while the church leadership has abandoned its prophetic voice in support of the people they are called to serve, the people in the parishes and congregations are filling the void. In addition to the CCA pastoral, several other examples demonstrate this.

In April, during the week of Earth Day, North Carolina-based St. Luke’s United Methodist Church joined with the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club and West Virginia Interfaith Power & Light to hold a two-day conference at the Catholic-owned St. John’s XXIII Pastoral Center in Charleston. The conference included people from various faith traditions, scientists, educators, preservationists, educators, artists and others. The theme of the conference, “Preserving Sacred Appalachia,” was organized out of a faith-based view of environmental stewardship, but was intentionally designed to welcome people from all walks of faith and life. (Read more here).

That same week, Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church was a first-place winner of Interfaith Power & Light’s annual Cool Congregations Challenge. The church earned its award for being the top renewable role model in the nation for, among other reasons, having the largest community-supported solar system in West Virginia. (Read more here).

In August, at its annual gathering, the West Virginia Sierra Club chapter considered how it, as a secular group, could apply the ecological encyclical by Pope Francis to its preservation efforts in West Virginia. That gathering led to the writing of this article.


Mediocrity at West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection

While the church, as an institution, was offering mixed messages on environmental stewardship, the state’s primary agency charged with protecting the environment for the people of West Virginia was sending a clear message – it is, at best, mediocre. In fact, its acronym – DEP – is referred to sarcastically as the “Department of Everything Permitted” by public health experts and environmentalists. In 2015, it was unresponsive to citizens expressing concerns about the health impacts of mountaintop removal. (Read more here), and its leader was unprepared for and even hostile to questions about the most basic of safety considerations regarding the impact of the energy extraction industry. (Read more here).


Eminent Domain abuse

Among the most egregious attacks upon the people of West Virginia was the misuse of eminent domain by the energy extraction industry. This is not surprising though, as without approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) and others in the future to extract gas from the shale fields of northern West Virginia, the industry will not be allowed to use eminent domain to seize the land of private landowners. Without that weapon, the energy industry is facing billions of dollars of losses already invested in what the industry obviously considered a slam dunk.

In March, Pittsburgh-based energy company EQT sent out letters to landowners threatening legal action if they did not allow EQT access to their property for surveys. The company’s lawyers argued that the pipeline would serve the interests of West Virginians, so eminent domain should apply. (Read more here and here). Opponents saw it differently and won in court – for now. (Read more here).


Public Health threats

Whatever one’s political outlook, it is generally agreed that a basic function of government is to guard the public’s health. This is part of its mission to “…promote the general Welfare…” as stated in the Preamble of the United States Constitution. Again though, even fulfilling this most basic responsibility of government seems beyond West Virginia’s capability – or willingness.

As already noted above, West Virginia DEP Secretary Randy Huffman out-of-hand rejected the Precautionary Principle as a reasonable, scientific method of protecting the environment and public health. This, despite clear evidence from health experts about the dangers of fracking and mountaintop removal (read here and here). The facts are supported by personal stories of destroyed lives from the extraction industry. (Read more here).


Environmental degradation

Those attempting to stop the environmental degradation caused by fracking and its related infrastructure got a good taste of what they will face should the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines receive FERC approval. Because those proposed pipelines would cross state lines, FERC approval is required. However, beginning in the spring and going well into the winter, another pipeline – the Stonewall Gas Gathering (SGG) pipeline – was constructed, traversing only about 56 miles of West Virginia. Hence, as an intrastate pipeline, FERC approval for it was not required. The SGG was built by Stonewall Gas Gathering, LLC, which was incorporated in Delaware on June 4, 2014. SGG is a subsidiary of Momentum (officially M3Midstream), based in Texas and Colorado. The Stonewall Gathering line is part of Momentum’s Appalachian Gathering System (AGS). The SGG connected to the AGS in Harrison County and terminates in Braxton County, where it connects to the Columbia pipeline. It runs also through Doddridge and Lewis counties. It began operation in December, but in the process disrupted the lives of thousands of West Virginians, harassed opponents, and caused significant damage to farmland, streams and roadways.

The West Virginia DEP did issue several Notice of Violations to Precision Pipeline, the company that built the pipeline. However, it did so only after numerous complaints from citizens. (Read more here).

As has already been demonstrated, the extraction industry operates from a position of arrogance – of “dominion.” In the next section are several links to stories about people and groups who learned this hard lesson and immediately began responding. Before reading those accounts though, you might want to refer to the articles, “A Dirty Dozen Reasons to Oppose Fracking” and “Filmmaker Finds Compelling Story in Her own Backyard.”


Citizens stand up to crony capitalism

Despite this relentless assault upon public health, the environment and property rights by the unholy alliance between government and business – known otherwise as crony capitalism – no small number of people and groups have organized and coordinated efforts to safeguard their human rights. The outreach has even extended across the states bordering West Virginia, as alliances have been formed with people and groups in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio and Kentucky.

As a result, I was fortunate to meet some incredible people giving completely of themselves and resources during the year. Following are a few examples.

The McClain family, farmers in Doddridge County (about 8,000 residents), though quiet and deferential people, stood their ground against the industry for ruining some of their crops. (Read more here).

Also in Doddridge County, residents joined with folks from neighboring counties to demonstrate their solidarity against the fracking industry. (Read more here).

Earlier in the year, a landowner in the mountains of Randolph County was a one-man army fighting Dominion Resources. He is working to protect some of the most pristine mountain valleys in West Virginia. (Read more here).

Also early in the year, several environmental groups challenged FERC to abide by its charter and deny approval of the pipelines because they would benefit private shareholders, not the people of West Virginia. (Read more here).

In a proactive response to the industry, a Harrison County couple modeled, for the public, their homestead powered by solar panels. (Read more here).

As the year came to a close, dozens of people and groups gathered in central West Virginia to learn more from each other and to coordinate efforts to oppose the fracking industry. (Read more here).


The Don Blankenship trial

The year concluded with the conviction of former Massey CEO Don Blankenship on charges brought by federal authorities because of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 coal miners in Raleigh County in April 2010. Sadly, the jury found Blankenship guilty on just one misdemeanor count brought against him – conspiring to willfully violate safety standards. The same jury found him not guilty of securities fraud and making false statements. His lawyers have said he will challenge the verdict. So, in light of the expected appeal and mixed verdict, it would seem the opportunity to send a message that crony capitalism would no longer be allowed to kill West Virginians was missed. Hence, it is an important chapter in this story of West Virginia’s reliance upon the fossil fuel mono-economy. Still, while it was covered by media from the United States and beyond, I consider it less important of a story than the stories above, in particular the response by average citizens to the assault they and their land face from the energy extraction industry.


Poor and biased press coverage

These are serious times requiring serious and devoted people. While I generally try not to be snarky about the mainstream media, I must say that I was quite disappointed that West Virginia Public Broadcasting considered a little dustup about pepperoni rolls as one of the top eight stories in West Virginia in 2015. Now, I’ve transported more than my share of pepperoni rolls across state lines. But the debate over fracking – a debate that continues savagely in every corner of the Mountain State – is a far more important story. Yet, this important issue did not even make the list from West Virginia Public Broadcasting, which claims to be committed to “Telling West Virginia’s Story.”

In this instance, it failed miserably.

Meanwhile, in Clarksburg, which is at the epicenter of the fracking industry, the city’s only newspaper – The Exponent-Telegram – has an owner who also owns interests in oil, gas and coal companies. The newspaper, which touts itself as “The Independent Voice of North Central West Virginia,” had not disclosed this conflict of interest to the public, even as it served as a cheerleader for the energy extraction industry. (Read more here and here).

The point is this: The Fourth Estate has become part of the establishment. Just as our three branches of government are intended to serve as a check and balance on the other two branches, so too, since the Revolutionary War era, has the press been counted upon to serve as a fourth check on the three branches of government. Now though, the courage required to honor that legacy is rarely found in a newsroom or TV studio. In short, the modern press, whether for-profit or not, will not challenge government, church and academia beyond the boundaries which might hit them in the pocketbook.

Consequently, it does not report what we truly need to know.



So, it’s up to the people. Last year left social justice and environmental activists exhausted, even burned out. Yet, the battle continues. While 2015 was not a good year for the people or environment of West Virginia, 2016 offers hope. It also offers great peril. The extraction industry has unlimited resources – cash, marketing departments and lawyers – that groups fighting for justice simply can’t match. The industry is working 24/7 to assault the people and natural beauty of West Virginia. So activists cannot rest. They are gearing up for a busy year, beginning with the legislative session that convenes next week. They have doggedly fought the industry hard in 2015. However, if they do not get additional manpower this year – an army of volunteers – 2017 will likely be too late to keep West Virginia from becoming an industrial waste zone that is unsuitable for any living thing.

© Michael M. Barrick/Appalachian Chronicle, 2016

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WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman Acknowledges Political and Business Climate in Charleston Limits Agency’s Effectiveness

Remarks made at public forum after Huffman and DEP staff tour fracking fields of Doddridge and Ritchie counties

By Michael M. Barrick

WEST UNION, W.Va. – West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) Secretary Randy Huffman acknowledged at a public meeting here July 16 that he and his agency’s effectiveness are limited by political and business interests in West Virginia. Huffman and several WVDEP staff members accompanied local residents throughout the day to visit those impacted by fracking in Doddridge and Ritchie counties.

Randy Huffman

Randy Huffman

Towards the end of a nearly two-hour public forum held by the Doddridge County Watershed Association, Huffman acknowledged “If I start pounding my fist, it is going to be a fruitless effort. I would become ineffective. There are too many entities at play in Charleston. If I did that, they’d laugh me out of the capitol building. It would limit my effectiveness.”

He also said, “That is above my pay grade.”

His remarks were made in response to the question, “Are you willing to recommend to the governor and legislature that the state employ the Precautionary Principle and place a moratorium on fracking and related activities?” The question was posed by this reporter after Huffman and his staff had listened to concerns and questions from numerous area residents.

The Precautionary Principle, according to the Science & Environmental Health Network, asserts, “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof. The process of applying the precautionary principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.”

The Precautionary Principle is a philosophy embraced by public health and environmental advocates across West Virginia regarding many aspects of the energy extraction industry. Indeed, in March, organizers of an event in Charleston which pointed out the public health risks of Mountaintop Removal (MTR) attempted, unsuccessfully, to meet with Huffman then to ask him to employ the Precautionary Principle and quit issuing permits for MTR.

While acknowledging that his hands were tied to an extent, he nevertheless told the roughly 40 people in attendance that their voices were being heard and their persistence would make a difference. He said that the agency is staffed by caring public servants who are most effective in their jobs where citizens are most active. “It creates a structure through which we can work.”

If that is the case, his agency’s employees should be able to make a difference in the area, as numerous citizens demonstrated just how informed and engaged they are, based on the volume and type of questions asked and comments shared.

Wayne Woods, the chairman of the watershed association began by saying, “I think there is a little bit of a disconnect among the departments of DEP,” noting that different branches of the agency dealt with water quality and air quality. Woods suggested that the agency issue handouts to its employees that would allow citizens to understand who they would need to contact if the person they were working with was dealing with an issue outside their scope of work.

Tina DelPrete asked, “I’d like to know when enough is enough?” Pointing to the many aspects of fracking and its effects upon the people, environment and infrastructure of Doddridge County, she added, “Will this go on indefinitely until our county becomes an industrial wasteland?” She continued, “Who is going to protect us? Maybe you should change your name to the DIP – the Department of Industrial Protection, because you sure are not helping the environment.”

Sharron Jackson offered, “The science is becoming clear. It is clear there is contamination.” Pointing out that she loves West Virginia, she still said, “I can’t encourage anyone to move here anymore. Not until we protect the water and air.”

Lyndia Ervolina, barely holding back tears, said, “I’ve lived here for 32 years. I can’t go out and enjoy my yard anymore. We are getting sold out. We don’t have a life anymore. I’m afraid to drink my water. I can’t breathe the air. We can’t even sell our homes; they’re worthless now. I just wish someone would listen to us.”

Autumn Long, a resident in nearby Wallace in Harrison County, said she was concerned about air quality and for her parents, who live near a major gas production site. Directing a question to Huffman, she asked, “What can we do to help move (solutions) forward? We need you as advocates and protectors.”

At that point, Huffman stood up to respond to the comments. He acknowledged, “Some of these questions are not answerable at this point.” He admitted though, “You have had a huge invasion of industrial activity.” Pointing out the fracking industry entered the area with no planning and roads and infrastructure that are not suitable for the heavy equipment used in the process, he added, “You’re overwhelmed.”

He continued, “This is an issue with limited solutions. We’re looking at a large issue.” He pointed out that it is just not an environmental issue, but also about energy and economics.

He encouraged residents to vote. Those remarks were met with several comments from those in the audience. One person said, “We have representatives. We’re just not represented.” Another said, of the county commission, “It’s a joke. They don’t even acknowledge our communications.”

Others zeroed in on specific issues, such as the disposal of drill cuttings and injection wells. On the issue of drill cuttings, which can contain radioactive materials, Huffman said, “That is why we have it go to landfills, where we can monitor it.”

Near the end of his statements, Huffman promised, “We will make adjustments on what we learned in the field. You’ve made a difference.”

© The Appalachian Preservation Project, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project. If you find this writing of value, we hope that you will consider support our independent work by becoming a member of the Appalachian Preservation Project. You can learn more here. By doing so, you will be supporting not only this website, but also our other outreaches, programs and partnerships.

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Jim Justice Mining Operation Endangers Public Health and Ecology, Says Scientific Center

Center for Biological Diversity calls upon federal and state officials to provide greater scrutiny of mining permit approved for Justice-owned McDowell County surface mine

By Michael M. Barrick

BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. – Tierra Curry, the senior scientist with the Center of Biological Diversity, has written an eight-page letter to state and federal officials asking the agencies to further review the public health and environmental impact of a surface mine owned by Jim Justice, who earlier this month declared his candidacy for governor of West Virginia.

Justice, who owns the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, is a Democrat. The gubernatorial race is in 2016. He is also the subject of news coverage reporting that he has avoiding paying fines leveled against his mining operations for various environmental violations.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national nonprofit conservation organization. The operation in question is the Big Creek surface mine in McDowell County. Last month, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection issued a surface mining permit to Justice Low Seam Mining, Inc. for the operations. In response, Curry wrote, “Please accept these comments from the Center for Biological Diversity concerning impacts to threatened and endangered species and the environment that will result from the proposed Big Creek surface mine. …”

Curry asserts, “In terms of intensity, this permit directly affects public health and safety, harms an ecologically critical area, has highly controversial effects on the environment, will cause and contribute to cumulative impacts in this important ecological area, and directly affects endangered species and their habitat.”

She adds, “More than 20 peer-reviewed scientific articles have now revealed threats posed to human health by pollution from mountaintop removal coal mining includes increased incidence of cancer, birth defects, cardiovascular disease and kidney disease.”

Additional Oversight Required
Hence, Curry argues that the agencies responsible for public health and environmental oversight have more work to do. In her letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, Curry wrote, “We ask that you undertake further environmental review and analysis before allowing this mining project to move forward. Specifically, we ask you to consider alternatives to the mine as proposed including a no action alternative and an alternative that does not include a valley fill and that buffers and protects all streams from mining activity. We also ask that you seriously weigh these comments given the applicant’s lengthy history of environmental violations when coal mining.”

Tierra Curry with the Center for Biological Diversity discusses the impact of climate change upon Appalachia at the Preserving Sacred Appalachia Conference in April 2015 Photo by Keely Kernan

Tierra Curry with the Center for Biological Diversity discusses the impact of climate change upon Appalachia at the Preserving Sacred Appalachia Conference in April 2015
Photo by Keely Kernan

Curry was in Charleston in April, where she was the keynote speaker at the Preserving Sacred Appalachia Conference at the St. John’s XXIII Pastoral Center. Recalling that visit, she shared, “When I visited West Virginia this spring for the Preserving Sacred Appalachia Conference, I got to hear spring peepers and whippoorwills and smell the flowering redbuds and trilliums. It was a heartbreaking reminder that when mining companies blast away mountains, they are not just blowing up dirt and rocks. They are blowing up the plants and animals that make the Appalachian Mountains so special, so sacred. Appalachia has more kinds of freshwater mussels, crawdads and salamanders than anywhere else in the world and yet companies are blowing up our natural heritage so that the rich can get richer and poor people can remain stuck in a boom and bust extraction economy that threatens public health and prevents economic diversification.”

Impact upon Water Quality and Habitats
In the letter, Curry notes, “The Big Creek surface mine will discharge into unnamed tributaries of Jacobs Fork, which flows into the Dry Fork of the Tug Fork on the Big Sandy River. The mine will harm more than 5 miles of currently high quality streams. The mine will impact 19 streams totaling 27,102 linear feet including, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 12, 715 feet of intermittent channel, 14,387 feet of ephemeral channel, and 0.15 acres of open water.”

She notes also, “We are writing to call your attention to required environmental documents for the mine including consultation with the USFWS on the northern long-eared bat, a conference with the USFEW on the Big Sandy crayfish, Protection and Enhancement for these two species, and an updated Wildlife Resources Lands Inquiry. We also wish to point out that the water quality impacts analyses for the mine are woefully inadequate.”

Curry notes that the surface mine would destroy 907 acres of primary hardwood habitat – home to the northern long-eared bat. “In short,” says Curry, “northern long-eared bats are interior forest dependent species and removal of 907 acres of their habitat will have significant impact upon the species.”

Big Sandy Crayfish Photo by Guenter Schuster

Big Sandy Crayfish
Photo by Guenter Schuster

The Big Sandy crayfish is also threatened by the mining operation, but as Curry points out, “None of the analyses for the mine have taken into consideration impacts that mining operations will have on the Big Sandy crayfish.” Curry states bluntly, “Both of these species will be harmed by the Big Creek surface mine and your agencies are obligated to safeguard these species from mining activities.”

History of Environmental Violations by Justice Noted
Curry also points out that the company owned by Justice has not provided proper plans to mitigate the impact of its activities. “The documents submitted with the application in no way meet these requirements. The response provided on how the mine will avoid and minimize adverse impacts is a single generic paragraph that includes no specific measures to safeguard water quality, the Big Sandy crayfish, or the capability of Jacobs Fork to continue to support trout.”

She also takes exception with claims by the company “… that downstream water chemistry is not expected to change.” Characterizing that claim as ludicrous, Curry writes, “Surface coal mining causes increased siltation and sedimentation, increased conductivity, increased total dissolved solids, and increased concentrations of pollutants including selenium, aluminum, sulfate, manganese, iron, and bicarbonate ions.”

She argues, “The inadequacy of the analysis is further evidenced in that in addition to stating that downstream water quality will not change, the analysis also says that downstream waters will receive alkaline leachate and that net alkalinity will be raised, which is an acknowledgment that downstream water quality will be changed.”

Curry continues, “Moreover, Jim Justice, the owner of Justice Low Seam Mining, Inc., has a long history of environmental violations at his mining operations including water quality violations. It was reported in July 2014 that coal mines owned by Mr. Justice have been cited for more than 250 environmental violations with unpaid penalties of about $2 million. Of note, a violation was recently issued to a Justice-owned mine by WVDEP for failure to pass runoff through sediment control. Thus, issuing a mine permit to this company, given its history of violations, is highly controversial.”

Coal Not the Future
Near the end of her letter, Curry offers, “The effects of surface coal mining on the quality of the human environment are unquestionably controversial due to the permanent and irreversible effects on the environment, the harm to human health, property damage, risk of flooding, and other factors. This mine in particular is controversial because in addition to the presence of endangered species on site, a church and a Head Start are downstream from the mine site.”

In addition to the remarks in her letter, Curry shared, “I visited with some of the families that live on the creek below the proposed Big Creek mine and I saw the Head Start center that would be at risk from flooding and pollution. People showed me their foundations and roofs that have been cracked from mine blasting and their wells that they can no longer use because the water has been contaminated. I think the people in the rest of the country don’t realize that U.S. citizens living in the coal fields do not have access to clean water. It is outrageous that here in the United States corporations are destroying people’s water and the people are so poor that they have no choice but to drink water that they know could make them and their families very sick.”

She concluded, “It is pretty obvious that blowing up mountains and dumping the waste into streams is bad for the economy, bad for public health, bad for endangered species, and bad for our children’s future; the science and economic studies are now available that unequivocally demonstrate the social, economic, environmental, and public health costs of surface coal mining. People need to stop defending the coal industry and realize that there are other paths forward economically, that there are other ways to keep the lights on, and that the billions of dollars the coal operators are amassing are never going to create a healthy economy for Appalachian communities. … There has never been a better time for people to unite and demand clean jobs, economic diversification, and a healthy environment.”

© Appalachian Preservation Project, LLC, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project. The Appalachian Preservation Project is a social enterprise committed to preserving and protecting Appalachia. If you wish to support our work, please consider becoming a member.

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Provisions of W.Va. Storage Tank Law Undermine its Stated Intent

Aboveground Storage Tank Act gives gas and oil industry protection from oversight

By Michael M. Barrick

– On January 9, 2014, at about 10 a.m., fire departments in Kanawha County, the home to West Virginia’s state capital, were dispatched to two locations because reports of a “chemical odor” were being called in by citizens. It was at least four hours before emergency response officials realized they had a major public health and ecological crisis on their hands – the water for 300,000 people served by the Elk River was unsafe for human use.

A child enjoys the wonder of a Wild West Virginia river. Photo courtesy of West Virginia Rivers Coalition

A child enjoys the wonder of a Wild West Virginia river.
Photo courtesy of West Virginia Rivers Coalition

It wasn’t until about 2 p.m. that Mike Dorsey, the emergency response coordinator for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP), determined that the release of the coal-mining cleaning chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) at a site owned by Freedom Industries along the Elk River had reached the water intake of the West Virginia American Water Company.

At the time, the West Virginia legislature had just convened, so, it wasn’t long before legislation was passed and then signed by Governor Earl Ray Tomblin. The law was designed to protect the drinking water of the state’s citizens as well as water for other essential uses, including farming, the aquatic life so valuable to the ecology of our watersheds, and the intrinsic value it offers people in the form of hiking, fishing, kayaking and more.

Lawmakers, Tomblin Reverse Course
Elections have consequences, however, and with the Republican-led House and Senate majority elected by Mountain State residents last November championing their “pro-business” agenda, public health and ecological concerns became subordinate to business interests. So, with the single stroke of a pen on March 27, Governor Tomblin acquiesced to the Republican leadership and, with his signature of Senate Bill No. 423, enacted the severely amended Aboveground Storage Tank Act into law.

The bill’s chief sponsor was Senator Mike Hall, a Republican representing District 4. Other sponsors were: Republicans Craig Blair and Charles Trump IV, representing District 15; Republican Mitch Carmichael, the other senator representing District 4; both senators from District 12, Democrats Douglas Facemire and Mike Romano; Democrats Art Kirkendoll and Ron Stollings, representing District 7; Republican Jeff Mullins, representing District 9; Democrats Robert Plymale and Mike Woelfel of District 5; and, Bob Williams, a Democrat representing District 14. Contact information for the senators can be found here.

Sandstone Falls on the New River near Hinton, W.Va. Photo courtesy of Debbie Smith

Sandstone Falls on the New River near Hinton, W.Va.
Photo courtesy of Debbie Smith

District 4 borders the Ohio River; District 5 also borders the Ohio River; District 7 includes a large portion of the southwestern coalfield counties; District 9 includes coal-producing Raleigh and Wyoming counties, as well as a small slice of McDowell County; District 12 stretches from Harrison to Clay counties and includes significant gas and oil interests; District 14 includes several northeastern counties, and District 15 is in the eastern panhandle. District maps can be seen here.

While Tomblin is term-limited and cannot seek re-election in 2016, senators have no term limits on their four-year terms. Elections for senators are staggered, with one from each district elected in alternating electing cycles.

The Law’s Stated Intent
At first glance, the law’s stated intent seems to be written for public welfare. In the first paragraph, in which the various amendments and changes are outlined, the language of the bill acknowledges that its original intent is “… all relating to protection of water resources and public health generally …”

The law further states: “The West Virginia Legislature finds the public policy of the State of West Virginia is to protect and conserve the water resources for the state and its citizens. The state’s water resources are vital natural resources that are essential to maintain, preserve and promote human health, quality of life and economic vitality of the state.

“The West Virginia Legislature further finds the public policy of the state is for clean, uncontaminated water to be made available for its citizens who are dependent on clean water as a basic need for survival and who rely on the assurances from public water systems and the government that the water is safe to consume.”

Indeed, the law even acknowledges that there are risks associated with aboveground storage tanks: “The Legislature further finds that large quantities of fluids are stored in aboveground storage tanks within the state and that emergency situations involving these fluids can and will arise that may present a hazard to human health, safety, the water resources, the environment and the economy of the state. The Legislature further recognizes that some of these fluids have been stored in aboveground storage tanks in a manner insufficient to protect human health, safety, water resources, the environment and the economy of the state.”

West Virginia Rivers Coalition Executive Director Angie Rosser speaks before West Virginia legislators about the Aboveground Storage Tank law. Photo courtesy of WV Rivers Coalition

West Virginia Rivers Coalition Executive Director Angie Rosser speaks before West Virginia legislators about the Aboveground Storage Tank law.
Photo courtesy of WV Rivers Coalition

Expert Says that Despite Law’s Stated Intent, Oversight is Severely Weakened
Angie Rosser, the executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, spent much of the legislative session working to preserve the original bill’s language, intent and purpose. While some protections remain in place, Rosser points out that there are several provisions in the amended law that severely weaken its intent and enforcement.

Specifically, she points to the reduction in the number of storage tanks that require an inspection; the lack of oversight of wells, watersheds, and groundwater; allowing companies to keep secret as “proprietary” the composition of hazardous materials and waste; allowing the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management to declare certain chemicals, policies and procedures free from public scrutiny; concerns about interagency cooperation; and, a provision which allows the Secretary of the WVDEP to grant exemptions to the law’s reporting requirements.

Zones of Concern
The number of aboveground storage tanks requiring inspection was reduced to an estimated 50,000 to 12,000 according to testimony by WVDEP officials during hearings for the bill. This reduction is concerning, said Rosser. “By defining the zones of critical concern and peripheral concern as it has, the legislature has reduced the number of tanks needing monitored, it has jeopardized ground water supplies, and has increased the risk to communities not within those zones.”

According to the law, “‘Zone of critical concern’ for a public surface water supply source and for a public surface water influenced groundwater supply source is a corridor along streams within a watershed that warrants detailed scrutiny due to its proximity to the surface water intake and the intake’s susceptibility to potential contaminants within that corridor. The zone of critical concern is determined using a mathematical model that accounts for stream flows, gradient and area topography. The length of the zone of critical concern is based on a five-hour time-of-travel of water in the streams to the intake. The width of the zone of critical concern is one thousand feet measured horizontally from each bank of the principal stream and five hundred feet measured horizontally from each bank of the tributaries draining into the principal stream.”

Bluestone Lake in southern West Virginia Photo courtesy of Debbie Smith

Bluestone Lake in southern West Virginia
Photo courtesy of Debbie Smith

A “zone of peripheral concern” is defined as, “The length of the zone of peripheral concern is based on an additional five-hour time-of-travel of water in the streams beyond the perimeter of the zone of critical concern, which creates a protection zone of ten hours above the water intake. The width of the zone of peripheral concern is one thousand feet measured horizontally from each bank of the principal stream and five hundred feet measured horizontally from each bank of the tributaries draining into the principal stream.”

An aboveground storage tank with a zone of critical concern is deemed a “level 1 regulated tank;” one in a peripheral zone is a “level 2 regulated tank.” All tanks “… with a capacity of 50,000 gallons or more, regardless of its content or location,” is a level 1 regulated tank. The tanks are also regulated if they contain substances defined in section 101(14) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) as a “hazardous substance” … or is on EPA’s “Consolidated List of Chemicals Subject to the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA), CERCLA, and … the Clean Air Act (CAA).”

As Rosser noted, “The problem with this is, in addition dramatically reducing the number of storage tanks within the oil and gas industry that require monitoring, it completely ignores private wells and those facilities that are beyond these ‘zones of concerns.’ This clearly shows the political muscle of coal, oil and gas to work together, in particular gas and oil.”

Public Access Restricted
Public access to information is also restricted, noted Rosser. The law states, “Trade secrets, proprietary business information and information designated by the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management as restricted from public release shall be secured and safeguarded by the department. Such information or data shall not be disclosed to the public or to any firm, individual or agency other than officials or authorized employees or representatives of a state or federal agency implementing the provisions of this article or any other applicable law related to releases of fluid from aboveground storage tanks that impact the state’s water resources. Any person who makes any unauthorized disclosure of such confidential information or data is guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction thereof, may be fined not more than $1,000 or confined in a regional jail facility for not more than twenty days, or both.”

Said Rosser, “This is crazy. After Elk River, when nobody knew what they were ingesting, to allow companies to keep the content of hazardous materials as ‘proprietary’ is an insult to the people of West Virginia. The provision allowing the Department of Homeland Security to limit disclosure is ridiculous. What are the odds of a terrorist getting access to these materials as opposed to them being released by a company out of negligence? This just allows corporations to hide behind national security.”

The Tygart Valley River at Valley Falls State Park on the Marion and Taylor County line in West Virginia. Photo by MB

The Tygart Valley River at Valley Falls State Park on the Marion and Taylor County line in West Virginia.
Photo by MB

Furthermore, the law states, “The exact location of the contaminants within the zone of critical concern or zone of peripheral concern is not subject to public disclosure in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.” The law does require that emergency responders and the public be “promptly notified” in the event of a spill. It does not require, however, that the public be informed of the nature of the threat. Emergency response officials would be told as the event unfolds, though certainly not with sufficient time to garner situational awareness for developing an incident action plan.

Interagency Cooperation a Concern
Rosser also expressed concerns about the interagency cooperation called for in the law. The statute reads, “In implementation of this article, the secretary shall coordinate with the Department of Health and Human Resources, the West Virginia Public Service Commission, the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and local health departments to ensure the successful planning and implementation of this act, including consideration of the role of those agencies in providing services to owners and operators of regulated aboveground storage tanks and public water systems.” It continues, “The Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management shall also coordinate with state and local emergency response agencies to facilitate a coordinated emergency response and incident command and communication between the owner or operator of the regulated aboveground storage tank, the state and local emergency response agencies, and the affected public water systems.”

Rosser shared, “This means agencies – especially local ones such as public health departments and offices of emergency management, which are often operating with only part-time staff – will be charged with enforcement duties when they often lack the manpower and expertise to exercise their present duties. This isn’t a criticism of local folks; it’s an acknowledgment that they state does not collaborate well with or properly finance local emergency response agencies.”

Industry Provided Loophole
Oversight and enforcement of the law rests with the WVDEP Secretary. His or her office is responsible for conducting an inventory of the tanks which meet the law’s definitions, reviewing emergency plans, issuing permits, inspecting the tanks, establishing guidelines for tank safety, determine non-compliance, and issuing and collecting fines.

However, Rosser pointed out that the law provides a loophole that gives the WVDEP Secretary too much discretion to ignore important aspects of the law. The provision states, “For those entities that are otherwise regulated under those provisions of this chapter that necessitate individual, site-specific permits or plans that require appropriate containment and diversionary structures or equipment to prevent discharged or released materials from reaching the waters of the state, the secretary may amend those permits or plans associated with those permits or both at the request of the permittee to include conditions pertaining to the management and control of the regulated tanks, so long as those conditions in the opinion of the secretary are sufficient in combination with practices and protections already in place to protect the water of the state.” It adds, “Any entity whose permit or plan modification or amendment relating to tank integrity and secondary containment design operation and maintenance is approved by the secretary and so maintained shall be deemed to be compliant with the article and entitles the entity to a certificate to operate…”

Rosser observed, “This essentially means that companies have to register, but not comply. All inspections and standards would not refer back to the act, but would be determined by what is in the modified plan.” She added, “The DEP will get 12,000 modification requests. Why even have the law?”

Business as Usual
Rosser raises a valid question. Why, indeed, did lawmakers take the time to declare its concern for the public health and safety of its citizens and the importance of protecting water – our very source of life – then write provisions that undermine their lofty words?

Because, as usual, West Virginia is open for business. Once again, short-term profit trumps the dignity of West Virginia’s people and her resources. For the Mountain State, it is business as usual.

© Appalachian Preservation Project, LLC, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project. The Appalachian Preservation Project is a social enterprise committed to preserving and protecting Appalachia. If you wish to support our work, please consider becoming a member.

Also, the “Preserving Sacred Appalachia” Earth Day conference is going to be this Monday and Tuesday, April 20-21 in Charleston, W.Va. This is a wonderful opportunity to be part of a community of like-minded preservationists to address the topics covered extensively on this site. Registration is open through Saturday. Learn about it and register for it here.

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Citing Medical Studies, Activists Call for End to Mountaintop Removal Permits

West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection accused of ‘permitting one disaster after another’

By Michael M. Barrick

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – On March 16, a day before seven environmental groups announced their intention 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, approximately 200 people rallied in front of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) building to demand that it stop issuing permits for mountaintop removal.

Participants in The People's Foot Rally Photo ©Chuck Wyrostok/AppaLight.com

Participants in The People’s Foot Rally
Photo ©Chuck Wyrostok/AppaLight.com

Speakers moved beyond the customary concerns about environmental impacts and alluded to several studies that show that the strip-mining practice causes lung cancer and other respiratory illnesses from clouds of fine blasting dust.

According to one study published on the United States Institute of Health webpage, “Appalachian mountaintop mining particulate matter induces neoplastic transformation of human bronchial epithelial cells and promotes tumor formation.” Additionally, the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Campaign website offers a brief video about a child needing breathing treatments because of exposure to dust clouds from a nearby mountaintop removal site. Another page, on the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition website, provides information garnered from more than two dozen studies about the illnesses and deaths caused by mountaintop removal.

Among those present or speaking at “The People’s Foot” rally were several environmental leaders, Mountain State residents, at least two groups of college students visiting West Virginia on immersion trips, a singer from Kentucky, a Charleston singer and poet, and a 10-year-old girl.

Vernon Haltom, executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch boomed, “DEP Secretary Randy Huffman has finally conceded that these health studies need to be considered, but he says his agency does not have the expertise to do so. If his agency does not understand the health impacts of the actions that they permit, then they have no business issuing more mountaintop removal permits. Randy Huffman has the authority, the mission and the moral obligation to protect people’s health, so he should issue no more mountaintop removal permits until he understands the consequences.”

Participants in The People's Foot Rally hold up signs for WV DEP staff to see Photo ©Chuck Wyrostok/AppaLight.com

Participants in The People’s Foot Rally hold up signs for WV DEP staff to see
Photo ©Chuck Wyrostok/AppaLight.com

Maria Gunnoe, an organizer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition added, “Mountaintop removal is killing the people I love, and my government is allowing it. The West Virginia DEP is permitting one disaster after another, and the people of West Virginia are paying for these disasters.”

Bo Webb, who organized the rally, called for the passage of federal legislation – HR 912, the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act. “Randy Huffman could refuse to issue another mountaintop removal permit based on the health impacts, but he would lose his job. Our state government will make sure that the permits continue to flow.”

Tom Breiding with Wheeling Jesuit University’s Appalachian Institute brought a group of students to the rally and was taking them to the West Virginia Coal Association office the next day. “We provide a comprehensive overview of what is happening in West Virginia,” said Breiding.

Also escorting a student group was Wess Harris. A sociologist by training, Harris is also a farmer, educator, and self-described progressive activist living in central West Virginia. He is also a retired underground miner who was a union organizer. He stressed that he seeks to provide the students he brings in with a balanced understanding of West Virginia. “I want them to learn what we are hearing today, but I also want them to respect coal miners. It is important that they understand that we’re not bad people.” He added, about the students, “I hope they come up with a solution.”

Tonya Adkins, a native West Virginian now living in Kentucky, sang a song she wrote based on Revelation 11:18. The lyrics include the line, “What will they say on the judgment day when God destroys those who destroyed the earth?” Commenting upon her song, she shared, “A thread that runs through this is the poisoning of our water.” Revelation 11:18 reads, “The nations raged, but your wrath has come, and the time for the dead to be judged, and to recompense your servants, the prophets, and the holy ones and those who fear your name, the small and the great alike, and to destroy those who destroy the earth” (New American Bible, Revised Edition).

The 10-year-old, Ukiah Cordell of Charleston, said, “I used to love hiking up a mountain, letting the cool breeze blow away my negative thoughts. I still do. But now, it is not always so nice.” She concluded with a proclamation of hope, saying, “Mountaintop removal started here and we are going to end it here.”

Organizers and participants of The People's Foot Rally wait in the DEP lobby to be heard by DEP staff. Initially, 10 had planned to meet with DEP leaders, but others joined. When DEP staff said not all present could be in the meeting, all in the group left Photo ©Chuck Wyrostok/AppaLight.com

Organizers and participants of The People’s Foot Rally wait in the DEP lobby to be heard by DEP staff. Initially, 10 had planned to meet with DEP leaders, but others joined. When DEP staff said not all present could be in the meeting, all in the group left
Photo ©Chuck Wyrostok/AppaLight.com

© Appalachian Preservation Project, LLC, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project. The Appalachian Preservation Project is a social enterprise committed to preserving and protecting Appalachia. If you wish to support our work, please consider becoming a member.

Also, the “Preserving Sacred Appalachia” Earth Day conference is scheduled for April 20-21 in Charleston, W.Va. This is a wonderful opportunity to be part of a community of like-minded preservationists to address the topics covered extensively on this site. Learn about it and register for it here.

Also, if you use Facebook, please “like” our page: https://www.facebook.com/appalachianpreservationproject

Federal and State Agencies Targeted for Lax Oversight of Mountaintop Removal

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.

A Mountaintop Removal Site Photo courtesy of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

A mountaintop removal site
Photo courtesy of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

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.”

A mountaintop removal site Photo courtesy of Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

A mountaintop removal site
Photo courtesy of Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

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.”