"In the future, if you expect to meet with me concerning an environmental issue, I welcome you to schedule a meeting, as do the other citizens of this state, and to act in a professional manner."
Last week, Massey Energy sent its own letter to Coal River Mountain Watch.
Massey demanded that the organization "immediately provide ... any information you have to support the claims that you have made regarding the safety of the [Goals Coal] facility."
Taking it to the steps
On June 21, Webb, Judy Bonds and other Coal River activists met with Manchin about the Goals Coal operation. The governor promised to look into their complaints.
Nine days later, the DEP approved permits for the new silo and for continued operation of the slurry impoundment.
"The proposed coal silo is to be constructed on previously bonded area of the permit," DEP permit supervisor Ed Wojtowicz wrote in a memo recommending the approval.
On July 5, Ed Wiley of Rock Creek, whose granddaughter attends Marsh Fork Elementary, took a seat on the state Capitol steps. Wiley said he would not leave until the governor promised to do something about the Massey operation.
Manchin sent his in-house lawyer, Carte Goodwin, out to talk to Wiley, and Wiley agreed to meet with the governor in his office.
Eventually, Manchin and Wiley appeared together in front of assembled television cameras. The governor promised to try to relocate Marsh Fork Elementary.
Manchin insisted that he did not want to second-guess decisions by the DEP, but also pledged to find out if the agency had done its job properly.
As late as last Tuesday, Goodwin said, "The governor trusts DEP and trusts the experts." By Friday, though, Goodwin was saying the DEP clearly had made a mistake.
"There has been an oversight, and the permit was approved when it probably should not have been," Goodwin said.
Goodwin said Friday's actions by the DEP were "good government," and that the governor could rightly take credit for them.
"An agency made its decision," Goodwin said. "Concerns were raised by the residents, and the governor asked the agency to go back and make sure they were right. They found a discrepancy, and they are correcting it."
A second look by the DEP
During a meeting Friday, DEP officials said their Manchin-ordered re-examination of the Goals permit did not include a look at the original permit maps. Instead, DEP staffers were focused on looking again at residents' concerns that dust and chemicals from the Massey facility were making students sick.
Keith Porterfield, a deputy director at the DEP's mining field office in Oak Hill, said his staff never thought to go back and compare the silo maps to the original permit maps.
"We do our best to minimize these things," Porterfield said. "But people are going to make mistakes.
"DEP is made up of human beings," he said. "And as long as we are on this side of eternity, no matter how honest and how sincere people are, they are just going to make mistakes."
How could it happen?
How could the DEP miss the fact that the Massey permit boundary had crept closer to an elementary school?
First of all, the technology for making permit maps has changed dramatically. This makes it hard to compare earlier drawings — especially 23-year-old ones — to newer, computer-generated diagrams.
Second, the DEP does not require actual surveys of permit boundaries when it issues permits or permit changes.
Third, DEP staffers do not prepare mine permit maps. Instead, they rely on maps that companies submit. Each map must be signed by a licensed engineer. Engineers also stamp maps with their seal, swearing that the permit boundaries and other details are accurate.
Finally, DEP permit reviewers do not go back and compare every proposed boundary change to original drawings in older permit files. Instead, they look to the most recent certified maps.
On Friday, Huffman ended that. He ordered two changes he said should keep such a problem from occurring again:
Every permit revision that includes activity within 300 feet of an existing permit boundary "must be thoroughly investigated to ensure no boundary encroachments will take place," Huffman said in a memo to permit supervisors. This investigation must "include a review of all previous maps of record to ensure no incidental boundary changes have occurred," Huffman said.
Whenever a proposed permit activity falls within 300 feet of a protected area such as a school, "a written statement must be made indicating all activity is contained within the existing permit boundaries" from the original permit.
"Due to the fact that permit boundaries are not always exact in the same manner as property boundaries, it is possible for a proposed activity close to an existing permit boundary to extend beyond the boundary, depending upon where the boundary is interpreted to be located," Huffman wrote. "It is also possible for subsequent permit maps to have unintentional but unapproved boundary changes that could impact future permit revisions, especially in cases where the proposed activity will be close to the boundary."
Huffman said he hopes these changes will begin to satisfy agency critics.
"We determined that we made a mistake on a small area of a permit boundary, but we're headed in the direction of correcting that mistake," Huffman said. "I would hope that would develop some trust that we want to do the right thing."