CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia regulators will have to greatly improve their treatment of water pollution from dozens of old coal operations across the state, as part of a proposed settlement with environmental and citizen groups over the clean up of abandoned mines.
The state Department of Environmental Protection agreed to the deal after losing two federal court cases and an appeal in a legal effort to avoid setting pollution limits for the abandoned sites where it treats water discharges.
Over the next four years, DEP will now have to write water pollution permits, set discharge limits and install new treatment systems at more than 170 former mining sites in 20 counties.
The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and other groups have spent years trying to push such reforms of the DEP's Special Reclamation Fund, which handles mine sites abandoned since the 1977 federal strip-mining law was passed.
"The state was running these sites 'off the books' to try to escape accountability for necessary water treatment," said Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman for the Conservancy. "Now that they are properly 'on the books,' WVDEP will calculate, for the first time, the full treatment costs at these sites. We have been asking for that calculation for over twenty years."
DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said the settlement could force his agency to re-examine the funding stream for the special reclamation program, which comes in large part from a tax on coal production.
Under the settlement, DEP must come up with an inventory of sites and estimated costs for additional treatment systems by July 2012.
"It's going to be significant," Huffman said. "To say that it can be done on the cheap or that it's not going to affect the solvency of the special reclamation fund would not be accurate."
Lawyers for the citizen groups had been prepared to file new lawsuits against the DEP, following up on previous litigation in federal courts in both northern and southern West Virginia. Instead, they filed copies of those suits on Tuesday along with copies of proposed settlements, which need court approval to be finalized.
"We're beyond the arguments now of whether it's appropriate or not. That discussion is over," Huffman said. "And now we're moving forward to find a mechanism to permit all of these sites."