Coal River’s namesake root of problem, some say
SETH — In late September, Department of Environmental Protection staffers brought their PowerPoint slides, maps and charts to Sherman High School.
At a meeting in the cafeteria, they tried to explain the DEP’s proposed plan to clean up the Coal River.
“We’re here to talk about how we can get the Coal River and all of its tributaries back into meeting water quality standards,” DEP’s Jim Laine explained to about a dozen people.
First, the DEP plans to target old, abandoned coal mines. Then, agency officials will try to stop untreated residential sewage discharges. Later, they will go after logging and farming.
Only if those things don’t work, DEP officials say, will they tighten restrictions on active mining operations.
The proposal did not go over very well with folks like Pauline Canterbury. Canterbury, who lives in Sylvester, has been fighting repeated environmental violations by the Massey Energy operations that share her community.
“What you’ve got up there isn’t going to clean up the Coal River, because what you’ve got up there isn’t the problem,” Canterbury told DEP officials at the meeting in Seth.
Over the past year, the Coal River’s problems and promise have gotten increasing attention.
In large part, the publicity has come from a coalition of Charleston-area residents — led by two former chemical company officials — who worry that residential sewage discharges make the river unsafe for swimming and boating.
But farther south, along the upper Coal’s headwaters — along Marsh Fork and Pond Fork, and in places like Whitesville and Sundial — folks say that the chemical company employees and the DEP officials have things backwards.
Residents here point to repeated blackwater spills from preparation plants, hundreds of miles of streams buried by valley fills and other repeated violations of water pollution rules by the coal operations that line the valley.
If anything is killing the Coal River, these residents say, it is the river’s very namesake.
And instead of focusing on abandoned mines and residential sewage, residents want to see the DEP crack down on the area’s active mining operations.
“The mining companies are the biggest polluters, but what’s happening is that the people are being blamed for the pollution,” said Janice Nease, an activist with the group Coal River Mountain Watch.
“That’s a plan that goes nowhere,” Nease told DEP officials. “It doesn’t protect us, and it doesn’t clean up our water.”
A pollution budget
From its headwaters to its mouth, more than 1,118 miles of streams wind through the Coal River watershed.
Added together, that’s a stream longer than the Ohio River. That count does not include all of the intermittent and unnamed tributaries.
In an August report, the DEP said 128 streams flowing for nearly 600 miles in the Coal River watershed are impaired by pollution. Those streams either don’t meet numeric limits for the allowed concentrations of particular pollutants, or they are otherwise too dirty for certain uses, such as swimming or drinking.
At the same time, though, recent DEP reports indicate the agency has assessed only about 80 streams totaling about 480 miles, or less than half of the total stream length in the watershed.
Of the 480 miles the DEP has assessed, only about one-fifth fully supported their “designated uses,” meaning they were safe for swimming, boating, fishing and for drinking water.
DEP officials point to three general pollution problems in the Coal: excessive amounts of toxic metals, serious sedimentation, and unhealthy amounts of fecal coliform bacteria.
In its reports, the DEP says the principal source of that pollution for 64 miles of Coal River streams is unknown. For another 64 miles, the DEP says the main source is abandoned coal mines. Timbering, raw sewage and highway runoff each account for 58 miles of impairments, the DEP says. Active mining isn’t listed in the DEP reports.
Under a lawsuit that forced compliance with the federal Clean Water act, the DEP must write a plan to clean this mess up.
This plan is called a Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL. A TMDL is basically a pollution budget, which lists the reductions in discharges needed to clean up the streams.
Right now, the DEP is studying the Coal. Agency officials and contractors will examine their water quality data, look at permit records and plug numbers into computer models.
By December 2005, they hope to announce their plan.
“I’ve never been down this way,” said Craig Skaggs, as he and his wife pulled up outside Sherman High School. “This is my first time in Seth.”
Skaggs, a longtime DuPont Co. lobbyist and spokesman whose grandmother came from Whitesville, is one of the leaders of The Coal River Group.
Along with former FMC spokesman Bill Currey, Skaggs wants to see the Coal River cleaned up.
Both men live along the river near St. Albans. They enjoy boating and fishing, and think the Coal can become a major tourist attraction for the Kanawha Valley.
But, they are worried about reports that found potentially dangerous levels of fecal coliform bacteria in the river.
The DEP believes the bacteria, which can make people sick, comes mostly from faulty residential septic systems and from “straight pipes,” the ubiquitous pipes that carry residential sewage directly into streams.
During DEP’s meeting in Seth, Skaggs said his group had been unable to find a state agency willing to step forward to protect recreational users of the Coal.
“We’re pretty well convinced this is something that falls through the cracks,” Skaggs said.
Skaggs said he was disappointed when DEP officials at the meeting could not say how many coal mine discharges are permitted along the Coal — or say how well those operations had complied with pollution limits.
Later, DEP officials released a report that showed nearly half of the 786 water pollution permits in the Coal watershed belong to mining companies. Of the more than 3,100 individual pollution outlets, 85 percent are at mining operations, the DEP report showed.
In that same report, the DEP explained that its cleanup plans emphasize dealing with un-permitted pollution sources — such as abandoned mine sites and straight sewage pipes — rather than improving compliance by companies that already have permits.
“Assumptions are that point sources that are subject to water pollution control permits provide the highest degree of sediment control,” the agency said.
Skaggs said he does not disagree with the complaints from coalfield residents about mining operations along the river.
But, he concedes, there are really two Coal rivers: the one that he and Currey want to make into a tourist haven, and the one coalfield residents are trying to save from the mining industry.
“They live up there in the middle of that,” Skaggs said. “It’s probably the mess that they describe. I have no reason to believe it’s not.”
Skaggs also says he knows that he and Currey have some distinct advantages in working to protect their version of the Coal River. The Coal River Group includes folks who have lobbied professionally, done public relations for big companies, and know how to work the system. Groups in the Upper Coal do not have those things, Skaggs said.
“You have one group that is less connected, and probably has less money,” Skaggs said last week. “We know who to call at the newspapers.”
Closing the Canoe Livery
For nearly a decade, John Walls and his family ran the Coal River Canoe Livery. They were running just the sort of tourist business that Skaggs and Currey say could flourish along the Coal.
Based just 20 miles from downtown Charleston, the livery offered self-guided floats down the Little Coal.
Walls also organized periodic river cleanups, to collect and haul away debris and streamside litter. He offered discounted prices to customers who collected a bag of trash during their trips.
Walls had been exploring the Little Coal for more than 25 years, since his family moved to its banks.
“Getting people on the river to see it and appreciate its potential is the best way to keep in clean,” Walls said in a 1995 newspaper interview.
But in September 2001, Walls closed the livery’s doors.
In a lawsuit, Walls blamed blackwater and sludge spills from Massey Energy’s Independence Coal operations. The suit, filed in September 2002, alleged that the spills “turned the river black with coal dust, and negated all of the efforts [Walls] had made to clean up the river.”
In a deposition on file at the Kanawha County Courthouse, Walls said that once the damage occurs, “you can’t go down there with a vacuum cleaner and suck it out.
“I mean, it’s like four to six inches of muck that covers the entire — anywhere the water has been — after a spill,” Walls said. “And once it goes back down, it leaves the muck behind, plus the bottom’s coated.
“And even after a high water or a flood, it still won’t flush,” he said. “It will get off the banks, but the bottom still stays full.”
Through his lawyers, Walls declined to be interviewed. His lawsuit is pending, but appears headed for a settlement. A trial scheduled for last summer was postponed.
‘For health and safety’
During the meeting in Seth, DEP officials tried to explain the complicated process they use to draw up stream cleanup plans.
With their slide show, they talked about identifying impaired streams and characterizing pollution sources. They explained computer models and allocation strategies.
The residents didn’t want to hear any of that. They wanted to talk about blackwater spills, dust emissions, floods and valley fills.
“We’re concerned about the chemicals that come out of these mines and go into the river,” said Mary Miller, another Sylvester resident.
Freda Williams, who lives near Whitesville, said the whole plan sounds like “a smokescreen by the state for the coal industry.”
“This is a long, drawn-out program,” Williams said. “For the health and safety of the people, there needs to be more action taken more quickly.”
Dave Montali runs the stream cleanup program for the DEP’s Division of Water and Waste Management.
Montali did not attend the meeting in Seth. Last week, he said he had heard it was a pretty heated event. But, he said, residents should not have walked away with the idea that the DEP’s plan would not consider coal industry compliance problems.
When the DEP writes a cleanup plan, it first figures out what the pollution problems are in a stream. Then, the agency tries to pinpoint where those problems are coming from.
Using elaborate computer models, the agency calculates loads — figures for how much of the pollutants involved can be discharged. Because the stream already violates pollution standards, the model spits out new, tighter discharge limits aimed to reduce the overall pollution.
Generally, the models assume that current permit holders comply with their discharge limits. But, Montali said, the DEP tries to “calibrate” the models based on whether current permit holders really do comply.
In the end, though, the plan still comes down to setting new permit limits. If companies won’t follow those limits, writing the plan won’t fix the situation.
“That problem can only be fixed by proper enforcement of the permit limits,” Montali said.
Evan Hansen, who follows DEP cleanup plans for the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, agrees.
“The problem is not going to be solved unless they address enforcement problems,” Hansen said. “But, they don’t want to touch any active mines with tougher pollution limits.”
A DEP crackdown
In late 2001, the Wise administration launched a crackdown on repeated blackwater spills along the Coal by various Massey Energy operations.
In a rare move, the DEP sought to use its permit-suspension authority to shut down several Massey operations that had been cited over and over for spills and sediment problems.
Massey fought the DEP, appealing the move to various circuit courts. The DEP enforcement actions have been tied up in court ever since.
The DEP won a state Supreme Court case in which Massey challenged the agency’s authority to order the permit suspensions.
In two cases, the violations by Massey subsidiaries were so flagrant that U.S. Attorney Kasey Warner prosecuted the companies for criminal Clean Water Act violations in federal court. Those subsidiaries, Omar Mining and Independence Coal, each paid the maximum fine of $20,000.
The DEP still has pending five civil lawsuits that seek monetary damages from Massey for similar violations along the Coal.
“You clearly have a compliance issue regarding active operations,” said Perry McDaniel, chief of the DEP Office of Legal Services.
But two weeks ago, the DEP settled one of the lawsuits over its efforts to suspend the permit for Independence’s huge Liberty Preparation Plant along Robinson Run, southeast of Madison.
Originally, the DEP ordered permit suspensions of 35 days for the Liberty plant, the Justice deep mine, and the Jake Gore impoundment.
State inspectors had cited all three operations for repeated drainage problems, spills and water quality violations.
In one instance at the Liberty plant, a Massey official allowed polluted water from a slurry pump to pour into Robinson Run for hours. The official decided to not shut down or fix the pump until the next day, when it was scheduled for routine maintenance.
The state Surface Mine Board threw out the suspensions for the deep mine and the impoundment, and reduced the preparation plant shutdown from 16 days to 12 days.
Under the new deal, the DEP agreed to further reduce that suspension to seven days.
Also under the deal, filed Nov. 8 with the state Supreme Court, Massey agreed to hire a contractor to conduct a study of the Little Coal River.
The study will examine about 22 miles of the river from Danville to the Big Coal, said DEP mining inspector supervisor Bill Simmons.
Simmons said the study will spell out what that part of the river’s problems are, and propose projects that could solve those problems.
Under the deal, Massey is not required to complete any of the improvement projects. Other coal companies might do those later as part of “mitigation” for valley fills or to settle DEP enforcement actions, Simmons said.
“This was an initiative by the agency to develop plans for down the road to improve this section of the river,” McDaniel said. “This would be the first step toward developing those improvement projects.”
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.