Written by: Dan Radmacher
August 24, 2012
The West Virginia Environmental Quality Board issued an important ruling late last month calling on the state Department of Environmental Protection to only issue mountaintop removal mining permits after analyzing the potential for those permits to increase certain types of pollution – sulphates, total dissolved solids and electrical conductivity – and only if the permits have discharge limits for those pollutants.
The 26-page ruling came in a case brought by Appalachian Mountain Advocates on behalf of the Sierra Club challenging a permit for Arch Coal subsidiary Patriot Mining Co.’s New Hill West Mine along Scotts Run near Cassville in Monongalia County.
The challenge asserts that DEP should have done what’s called a “Reasonable Potential Analysis” to determine whether the permit for the mine would result in pollution discharges that would violate West Virginia water quality standards. If that analysis found it could, DEP should have put discharge limits and monitoring requirements on the permit.
Last year, the board found that DEP should have conducted such an analysis for sulphates, total dissolved solids and increased levels of conductivity. That decision was appealed and a Kanawha County Circuit Court judge ordered the board to spell out its rationale in more detail.
The result is a legally binding document that spells out the scientific evidence about the damage to West Virginia streams done by mountaintop removal mining.
The ruling said, ”The board finds that a growing body of science has demonstrated that discharges from surface coal mines in Appalachia are strongly correlated with and cause increased levels of conductivity, sulfate, and TDS in water bodies downstream from mines. The science also demonstrates that these discharges cause harm to aquatic life and significant adverse impacts to aquatic ecosystems in these streams.”
When coal is mined, rock and other material is exposed to air and water for the first time in hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of years. That material is broken up and reacts with oxygen and water. Many natural elements dissolve and run off in the water.
This creates a toxic soup. Alone, many of these elements aren’t at high enough concentrations to cause problems. But the cumulative impact can be dangerous to the health of streams.
The board faulted DEP for ignoring both the science and its own data. ”Despite longstanding and abundant evidence within the WVDEP’s watershed database for biological damage … in streams draining surface mines in West Virginia’s coalfields, the WVDEP has made little attempt either to determine the cause of such damage or to limit it,” the board ruling said.
As Executive Director Joe Lovett told The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr., ”The EQB’s ruling is in alignment with all of the science. The science is getting stronger every day saying these mines are degrading our state’s waters.”
Despite that, however, the day after the EQB ruling, a federal judge struck down the U.S. EPA’s water quality guidance memo that included the recommendation for state’s to adopt strict conductivity standards.
That rejection, though, was based on the legal and regulatory process, not science. And the EQB ruling means that, in West Virginia, anyway, conductivity standards will be included in permits moving forward. The important thing is that state and national regulators are understanding the importance of limiting the impact of increased conductivity in streams.