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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- While a federal court has rejected Obama administration guidance aimed at reducing mountaintop removal pollution, a new state appeals board decision is demanding tougher permit reviews and tightening water quality limits.
The state Environmental Quality Board said mining permits must include reviews of toxic pollution potential and new discharge limits for sulfates, total dissolved solids, and electrical conductivity.
EQB members issued a 26-page ruling that concluded scientific evidence clearly shows mining pollution is damaging water quality downstream from mountaintop removal operations.
In a 26-page decision, the EQB also said the state Department of Environmental Protection's own data backs up such conclusions and faulted DEP for not taking action on its own.
"Despite longstanding and abundant evidence within the WVDEP's watershed database for biological damage ... in streams draining surface mines in West Virginia's coalfields, the WVDEP has made little attempt either to determine the cause of such damage or to limit it," the board ruling said.
The EQB released its ruling late Tuesday morning, just hours before word began to spread of a federal court decision in Washington that threw out U.S. Environmental Protection Agency water quality guidance aimed at reducing mountaintop removal pollution.
EQB members ruled in a case in which the Sierra Club challenged DEP's approval of a water pollution permit for Arch Coal subsidiary Patriot Mining Co.'s New Hill West Mine along Scotts Run near Cassville in Monongalia County.
Sierra Club lawyers argued the DEP wrongly did not perform a "reasonable potential analysis" of the mine's possible sulfate, total dissolved solids, or TDS, and conductivity pollution. They argued that such studies would have forced DEP to include additional water pollution limits in the permit.
Arch Coal officials declined comment on the ruling, but an appeal by DEP or the company seems almost certain.
"An appeal or some way of contesting that seems likely," said Tom Clarke, director of the DEP Division of Mining and Reclamation.
DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said Wednesday that while mining and other industrial activities cause environmental damage, whether that damage is "significant" is a subjective matter that policymakers at DEP should decide.