CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Members of the state Environmental Quality Board on Friday began the process of rewriting a major decision that for the first time requires limits on conductivity pollution that scientists say is causing widespread water quality damage downstream from coal-mining operations.
Board members are taking another look at the matter after a circuit judge said they did not provide enough detail to explain their earlier decision concerning an Arch Coal Inc. mountaintop removal operation in Monongalia County.
Late last month, Kanawha Circuit Judge James Stucky sent the case back to the board, with instructions that members come up with "written supplemental findings detailing a reasoned and articulate decision."
The case focuses on efforts by environmental groups to force the state Department of Environmental Protection to apply to state permits new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency water quality guidance on conductivity.
Scientists used electrical conductivity as a key indicator of stream health and the presence of other important pollutants such as chlorides, sulfides and dissolved solids. Recent research has found increased conductivity downstream from mining operations in Appalachia, and scientists have linked impaired aquatic life to those increased conductivity levels.
Legal wrangling over the water pollution permit for Arch Coal subsidiary Patriot Mining's New Hill West Mine is one of two significant permit challenges that have flowed, at least in part, from the Obama administration's strip-mining crackdown.
In the other case, environmental group lawyers are trying to force the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to apply EPA's water quality guidance to an Alpha Natural Resources permit in Logan County.
Citizen groups have also used the Alpha case to, for the first time, insert into a permit challenge a series of West Virginia University studies that found high rates of birth defects, cancer and other illnesses among residents living near mountaintop-removal mines.
"Neither this, nor any other mountaintop-removal permit, should be issued," said Janet Keating, executive director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. "The corps and mining companies cannot ignore this important science at the expense of human lives."