The reports are called Discharge Monitoring Reports, or DMRs. Experts consider them the most basic tool for enforcing water pollution limits that are meant to keep rivers and streams clean.
For a four- to five-year period, though, DEP officials stopped reviewing DMRs filed by coal companies. No one at DEP has been able to explain exactly why.
"For whatever reason, we were not getting it done," Huffman said. "There was a glitch and they got off track with it."
Huffman said that he found out about the problem when he took over the mining division in May 2005. He said he quickly told staffers to fix the situation.
The effort took longer than Huffman had hoped. But by mid-2006, the agency had written new computer programs to review DMRs and spit out letters warning operations when their reports showed violations.
It's still not clear exactly how many violations DEP missed during the period it did not review DMRs. One effort by DEP to estimate the figure found more than 25,000 violations. Some agency staffers say that the number may be much larger. Others say the figure is smaller.
When the EPA-Massey settlement was announced last week, Huffman said that his agency had resolved its problem and was now reviewing coal industry pollution reports.
Huffman said that DEP has no plans to go back and cite companies for previous violations that weren't discovered during the period when the agency was not reviewing discharge reports.
But, Huffman said, actions were being taken for new violations. He said he didn't know how many violations the agency had found, or what kind of penalties had been assessed.
On Friday, McCormick said that in the last two years, DEP has run only three quarterly computer studies of coal industry DMRs. Those were for the third and fourth quarters of the 2006 calendar year and for the first quarter of the 2007 calendar year.
McCormick said he could not provide a figure for how many violations were listed in those three studies.
Operators with violations received letters notifying them of the problems, McCormick said, but no monetary penalties have been sought from any mining companies.
McCormick said that DEP's current plan is to fine companies only when an agency inspector takes a water sample that shows a violation. No fines are being issued for violations on DMRs, he said.
"That practice negates the whole purpose of the self-monitoring system and makes it much harder to detect and deter a violation," said Jim Hecker, environmental enforcement director for the group Public Justice. "It reduces the statistical likelihood of catching and punishing a violation, because inspectors are on site taking samples less often than the required permittee sampling frequency."