Environmental scientist Evan Hansen of the Morgantown firm Downstream Strategies, another expert for the Sierra Club, testified Tuesday morning that Scotts Run already shows signs of aquatic life impairment from sulfates and increased conductivity.
The situation could be made even worse, Hansen said, by Patriot Mining's plan to dispose of coal ash from the Morgantown Energy Associates power plant as part of the site's reclamation plan. Hansen conceded that coal ash's alkalinity can be of some help in reducing acid mine drainage from past and current mining in the area, but testified that DEP has not considered the potential long-term implications, such as more concentrated selenium runoff from the mine.
In part, the permit appeal focuses attention on a legal dispute over West Virginia's "narrative" water quality standard.
Unlike "numeric" water quality rules, the narrative standard itself does not specifically include numeric limits on allowable pollution. Instead, the narrative standard simply outlaws any condition that "adversely alters the integrity" of state waters or causes a "significant adverse impact to the chemical, physical, hydrologic, or biological components of aquatic ecosystems."
As part of its mountaintop removal crackdown, EPA issued guidance intended to better define the narrative standard by putting numbers on what constitutes significant adverse impacts on
DEP lawyer Jennifer Hughes argued that her agency has issued its own guidance for the state's narrative standard and that therefore the EPA's guidelines are not legally relevant here. Hughes repeatedly objected to questions and testimony about the EPA guidelines.
"Science informs policy decisions, it doesn't dictate them," Hughes said. "It is the DEP's responsibility to make those policy decisions."
Hughes said that the EPA is seeking to force "unobtainable limits" on West Virginia's mining industry, and McLusky repeated the coal lobby's belief that EPA is putting the health of aquatic insects over the economy of the region.
But Palmer testified that DEP's own water quality guidance does not properly take into account the important functions of aquatic insects that provide food and energy that is vital to the overall health of streams, fish and birds. Changing the number and type of insects can have broader impacts, she said.
"When you shift the makeup of a community, that can cause many changes in ecological processes," Palmer told the board.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.