Read the DEP policy here.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia regulators on Thursday issued new water-quality guidelines they and the coal industry hope head off the Obama administration's efforts to crack down on mountaintop-removal mining.
The state Department of Environmental Protection issued a new permit policy and a "justification" document that essentially reject tougher U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requirements.
Under the new policy, the DEP would require more detailed toxicity testing downstream from mining operations and for the first time force mine operators to show that proposed mines would not have a "reasonable potential" to cause "significant adverse impacts" on aquatic ecosystems.
The state's policy, though, would largely base such decisions on methods that EPA scientists believe are not the most sophisticated available and without using a firm limit on electrical conductivity as a measure of stream health.
DEP Secretary Randy Huffman urged EPA officials to defer to the new West Virginia guidance over more detailed federal agency reviews of Clean Water Act permit applications for valley fills and mining pollution discharges.
Huffman said he's not "trying to pick a fight" with the EPA, but added that if federal officials don't find his new policy acceptable, "I guess we'll have to see what happens."
The National Mining Association has already sued the EPA over the agency's mountaintop-removal policies, and Huffman's agency has hired outside lawyers in anticipation of perhaps filing a similar case.
Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said his group is still reviewing the new DEP guidance but hopes "it will get [the] EPA out of the state's face, as far as trying to dictate the water-quality standards."
Margaret Janes, senior policy analyst for the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, said the new DEP guidance "is not well founded."
"It's essentially [the] DEP acting as a friend of the coal industry, instead of a regulator," Janes said. "This is a continuation of business as usual."
In mountaintop removal, coal operators use explosives to blast off entire hilltops and uncover valuable low-sulfur coal reserves. Leftover rock and dirt is shoved into nearby valleys, burying streams.
Industry officials consider the method to be highly efficient and the only way to reach some thin seams of Appalachian coal. Critics point to the fewer number of workers mountaintop removal needs, and to a growing body of science that shows forests, water and community health are threatened by mining practices.