"I think you have environmental impacts anytime you turn a shovel," Huffman said. "There is environmental degradation that takes place with mining -- significant is a nebulous term that people use based on what they believe. That's a term people use to promote a political agenda."
The EQB, though, said such decisions can and should be made based on the best available science.
"The board finds that a growing body of science has demonstrated that discharges from surface coal mines in Appalachia are strongly correlated with and cause increased levels of conductivity, sulfate, and TDS in water bodies downstream from mines," the board ruling said. "The science also demonstrates that these discharges cause harm to aquatic life and significant adverse impacts to aquatic ecosystems in these streams."
In this instance, the board said that DEP "overlooked or discounted information that, had it been considered, would have compelled" the agency to include additional pollution limits to prevent violations of the state's water quality standards.
Board members ruled that evidence of water quality damage from existing mining in the state's coalfields was "un-refuted" by witnesses from DEP or the mining company.
"The EQB's ruling is in alignment with all of the science," said Joe Lovett, an Appalachian Mountain Advocates attorney who represented the Sierra Club in the case. "The science is getting stronger every day saying these mines are degrading our state's waters."
The board ruled against DEP even after Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin last November removed two EQB members -- Charleston businessman Ted Armbrecht and retired biologist James Van Gundy -- who were considered friendly to citizen and environmental groups.
Ruling for the Sierra Club in the 3-2 ruling were board Chairman Ed Snyder, a Shepherd University ecologist, and Marshall University scientists Scott Simonton and Charles Somerville. Ruling for DEP were West Virginia Geological Survey coal program manager Mitch Blake and former state Forestry Director Bill Gillespie.
This week's board ruling on the Arch permit reaffirmed an original decision that was sent back by a circuit judge who ordered the board to spell out its rationale in more detail. Armbrecht and Van Gundy both ruled against DEP in the original decision. Tomblin's new appointees, Somerville and Blake, split on the case.
While board members said the ruling pertains specifically to the New Hill West Mine, they also acknowledged that in other permits "headwater stream communities may require a more strict conductivity standard."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.