CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- National and state citizen groups are threatening to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for not stepping in to force West Virginia regulators to clean up hundreds of polluted streams.
On Friday, lawyers for the Sierra Club, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition sent their formal notice of intent to sue to EPA headquarters in Washington.
Technically, the threatened suit focuses on EPA's failure to act within the required 30 days to approve or reject the state Department of Environmental Protection's list of polluted streams that need cleaned up.
But the suit brings to light a simmering controversy over DEP not including hundreds of streams on that list, based largely on a coal industry-backed bill passed during last year's legislative session.
The bill, signed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, ordered DEP to abandon its existing methods of measuring stream health and come up with a new set of rules to define when streams are considered biologically impaired. DEP has yet to write those rules, and agency officials declined to add to last year's cleanup list hundreds of streams that might otherwise have been included.
"We need someone to call a stream polluted when it is, and if the West Virginia DEP won't do it, then the EPA must," said Jim Sconyers of the state Sierra Club chapter.
At issue in the potential lawsuit is the DEP's latest list of "impaired" streams. Federal law requires states to periodically publish such lists, and then to develop plans to clean up pollution in the contaminated waterways.
Under the law, if states don't comply then EPA is supposed to step in, and EPA also is charged with reviewing state stream lists and ensuring local regulators are doing the job properly.
In West Virginia, the DEP has for years used a measure called the West Virginia Stream Condition Index, or WVSCI, to grade if waterways are "biologically impaired." EPA has been pushing the state to use another test that it believes is more accurate. State officials and the coal industry, though, oppose the EPA method.