CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Citizen and environmental groups on Wednesday evening blasted a Tomblin administration emergency rule to weaken West Virginia's water quality limits for the toxic metal aluminum.
Leaders of the West Virginia Environmental Council, the Rivers Coalition, the Sierra Club and Coal River Mountain Watch called the move another state Department of Environmental protection giveaway to the coal industry.
"There is simply too much at stake to hastily make such a drastic change," said Angie Rosser, executive director of the Elkins-based Rivers Coalition.
Don Garvin, lead lobbyist for the environmental council, said he was especially disappointed that DEP made the change through an "emergency rule," bypassing the normal public review process and not talking with citizen groups prior to issuing the change.
"The public has been cut off," said Garvin, who said concerns about such actions by DEP were a big reason citizen groups had opposed moving water quality rulemaking duties to that agency from the state Environmental Quality Board in 2005.
In its emergency rule, DEP adopted a sliding scale that generally ties allowable concentrations of aluminum to water "hardness," or mineral content. Streams with harder water, or higher mineral content, would generally have higher allowable levels of aluminum.
The water quality standard is intended to protect fish and other aquatic life from the toxic effects of aluminum pollution. Coal industry officials have for years been urging DEP to relax its aluminum limits.
DEP officials said in rulemaking documents that they believe that at typical levels of acidity, there is a direct relationship between hardness and the toxicity of aluminum discharges. When hardness is greater, DEP said, higher levels of aluminum are not as toxic.
According to DEP, the emergency rule is justified to protect "the regulated community" from "unnecessary treatment costs" and to save the agency money by avoiding stream cleanup plans for waterways where pollution cleanups aren't really necessary.
While DEP held a public comment period on the rule Wednesday evening, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant already approved its designation as an emergency rule. The rule still needs approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before it can take effect.
In a report submitted to DEP on behalf of various citizen groups, University of Maryland aquatic toxicologist Carys Mitchelmore said the DEP rule would allow thirteenfold and forty-sixfold increases in aluminum concentrations, depending on hardness levels.
James VanGundy, an aquatic ecologist from Elkins, said he was not able to find much scientific literature to support DEP's rule. West Virginia's changes appear based, at least in part, VanGundy said, on an industry consultant's report prepared to support similar changes in Colorado.
VanGundy also noted that many West Virginia streams with high levels of minerals are made that way because of historic and existing coal-mining pollution. Now, he said, the DEP is simply citing that pollution as an excuse for allowing high levels of aluminum.