CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia regulators should examine whether hundreds of additional abandoned coal mine sites need new water pollution treatment under a legal settlement announced last week, a member of a Department of Environmental Protection advisory committee said Wednesday.
Mining engineer John Morgan urged the Special Reclamation Fund Advisory Council to look into the matter in the wake of a deal between DEP and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy to set pollution discharge limits at certain abandoned sites.
The deal, which still needs approval from U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr., applies to nearly 200 sites across the state, but Morgan pointed out the Special Reclamation program also includes roughly another 350 mines that have been abandoned since the federal strip mine law was passed in 1977.
"I'm just trying to be sure there's nothing missed," said Morgan, who represents environmental groups on the advisory council. "Do we have monitoring on all of those sites?"
The advisory council was set up a decade ago as part of a plan by the Wise administration to fix the under-funded Special Reclamation program and stave off a potential federal takeover of the program.
This year, though, the Legislature ignored the advisory panel's recommendation to double a state coal tax that funds mine cleanups, after DEP Secretary Randy Huffman wrote to lawmakers to oppose the council recommendation.
Now, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy is seeking to reopen a federal court lawsuit aimed at forcing the U.S. Office of Surface Mining to take over the mine cleanup program. At the same time, Conservancy lawyers got DEP to agree to the water pollution plan settlement after winning two lawsuits against the agency over the matter.
The Conservancy and its lawyers have spent years trying to reform the reclamation program, which has long lacked adequate resources because reclamation bonds and coal industry taxes weren't set high enough to cover cleanup costs.
The new settlement could end up especially expensive, given the potential for covering long-term costs of treating acid mine drainage from the abandoned sites.