CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Why are West Virginia's streams are so polluted that less than a quarter of them can support their designated uses -- such as recreation, providing drinking water or supporting aquatic life?
The example of the passage and implementation of Senate Bill 562 is very telling. It's yet another case of state regulators and lawmakers capitulating to a polluting industry rather than enforcing laws to protect the environment.
In recent years, it's become very clear that waters downstream from the valley fills associated with mountaintop removal mining are at greater risk for biological impairment, violating West Virginia's water quality standards.
The Department of Environmental Protection did nothing about this, ignoring guidance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Finally, Appalachian Mountain Advocates sued CONSOL Energy, and won an important settlement in which the company agreed to try to restore the biological integrity of Broadtree Branch, which flows into 20 Mile Creek.
The coal industry realized that this issue could end up being very expensive, so it responded in typical fashion. It didn't seek ways to mine more responsibly and cause less damage. Instead, it sued to block the EPA's guidance and it persuaded a compliant West Virginia Legislature to pass SB 562, an attempt to weaken those narrative standards by redefining them.
The DEP also responded in typical fashion. Every time a water quality standard becomes meaningful, i.e. painful to industry, the agency capitulates and weakens it. SB 562 required the DEP secretary to rewrite the rules for determining when streams were considered biologically impaired under the narrative standards.
At about the same time, the DEP was compiling its biennial list of impaired streams, as required by the federal Clean Water Act. Identifying impaired streams is the first step toward taking action to improve water quality. Impaired streams may be subject to Total Maximum Daily Loads that could strictly limit mining permits in order to protect aquatic life.