As legislation responding to the Freedom Industries leak makes its way through the Statehouse, Huffman said he wants lawmakers to remove the long list of industry-proposed exemptions to a bill to set new safety standards and inspection requirements for chemical storage tanks. Only very small tanks for things like home heating oil should be exempt, Huffman said. Any other tanks should only end up exempt if their owners can show they are governed by another equally stringent set of safety guidelines, Huffman said.
Also Wednesday, Huffman said he previously had sent agency inspectors who police a wide variety of industries out into the field for additional reviews to ensure any potential problems that might impact water supplies were addressed immediately.
"Let's see if our Ts are crossed and our Is are dotted," Huffman said.
Ward also said he's awaiting the complete results of a "blitz" of coal preparation plant inspections focused on the handling and storage of Crude MCHM, the chemical Freedom Industries leaked into the Elk River water supply that serves 300,000 West Virginians.
"We're looking into it," Ward said. "It's a pretty intense issue for my guys right now."
In the McDowell County incident, Ward said, there is a local water system located just downstream from the site but it does not get its water supply from the creek that's being polluted by the blackwater spill.
While DEP officials blamed the new spill on heavy snowmelt in the area, agency records show the operation was cited last month and again on Feb. 7 for runoff-related violations.
On Jan. 17, DEP inspectors cited "several areas of erosion" at the site that were "contributing to additional coal fines going into the ponds in Grapevine Branch." On Feb. 7, the agency found that "refuse and sediment has filled the sediment pond located a the toe of the coal fines removal area."
About a dozen years ago, DEP officials took over the impoundment site when a large drainage pipe became plugged and burst, sending slurry-tainted water pouring from the dam's base into the Tug Fork River. The DEP takeover followed repeated problems when other companies tried to recover waste coal from the impoundment.
Starting in March 1999, DEP inspectors cited the operation for a series of monitoring, drainage control and reclamation violations. In March 2002, one agency engineer warned that the impoundments could be at risk of "catastrophic" failure.
The DEP's special reclamation program spent more than $7.5 million to reclaim the site.
More recently, a company called Gary Partners LLC had reactivated the site's mining permit and was recovering fine coal particles buried at the operation. Under a royalty-permit deal with the DEP, Gary Partners had repaid the state about $2.2 million of the DEP's reclamation costs. However, Ward said the downturn in the coal market had hurt the operation, and that the DEP recently had issued a closure order because Gary Partners had stopped paying the agency its required royalties.
The incident at Antaeus Gary highlights another looming coal industry problem for the state: the chronically underfunded program that is supposed to clean up mine sites abandoned after passage of the federal strip-mining law in 1977.
Historically, the fund has been short of money because coal operators had not posted reclamation bonds sufficient to cover the true cost of mine cleanups at sites that were abandoned. A state tax on coal production was never set high enough to make up the difference.
While reforms have helped the special reclamation program, a January report to the Legislature warned that long-term water pollution treatment liabilities for abandoned mine sites would push the fund into the red by 2038.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.