Gov. Joe Manchin on Wednesday defended his administration’s handling of the controversy over two new Massey Energy coal-storage silos in Raleigh County.Manchin said that he has not lost any confidence in the state Department of Environmental Protection.“I’m not shaken at this point at all,” the governor said in an interview. “They’ve jumped right in to try to fix the situation.”Manchin said that he was proud that DEP officials did not hesitate to admit they had made a mistake and moved quickly to suspend a permit for one of the two Massey silos.
“I’m not in a vigilante, witch-hunt mode trying to chastise them,” Manchin said.“I told them if there was an error to correct it,” he said. “They are making every effort to correct as expeditiously as possible whatever problems are out there.”On Wednesday, DEP officials offered no new information on their investigation into permits for the Massey subsidiary Goals Coal Co. operation.“We’re trying to get all the facts and see where we are,” said Keith Porterfield, a deputy director with the DEP Division of Mining and Reclamation.Last Friday, the DEP suspended a permit for Massey to build a second, 168-foot-tall coal silo just 220 feet from the property line of Marsh Fork Elementary School near Sundial.The DEP also hired a surveying crew to help agency officials determine for sure if the silos are within the company’s legal permit boundary.Under state and federal law, no new mining operations are allowed within 300 feet of a school.In 2003 and again last month, DEP Secretary Stephanie Timmermeyer — a holdover from the Wise administration — approved the Massey silos anyway. Agency officials said that the silos were exempt from the 300-foot limit because they were within the permit boundary of an operation that existed prior to passage of the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act on Aug. 3, 1977.But maps that Goals Coal filed with the DEP showed that one silo has been built and the other was under construction on land that appears to have been slowly added to the company’s legal mine boundary over the last eight years.Massey never specifically asked for the permit changes, and the DEP never approved them. Instead, the changes just showed up on maps that company engineers filed periodically with the DEP.When they approved the two silos, DEP reviewers did not go back to the original company maps to compare the permit boundaries.
During a meeting on Friday, agency officials said that they were unaware of the map changes until The Charleston Gazette pointed out the problems.On Wednesday, Manchin said that Timmermeyer told him that DEP staffers discovered the map problems on their own, as part of a review ordered by the governor.“I was just told that there was an error in the maps,” Manchin said.On July 5, the governor had ordered the DEP to review its permit approval for the Goals Coal site. Manchin got involved to end a sit-in protest on the Capitol steps by Ed Wiley, whose granddaughter attends Marsh Fork Elementary.The DEP review, though, did not originally include going back to examine the older permit maps for the operation.Joe Lovett, a lawyer with the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, said that a law student interning at his office also brought the map changes to the DEP’s attention.
“The DEP was completely unaware of it,” Lovett said. “DEP didn’t have a clue about it.”In a notice of intent to sue, filed on behalf of the group Coal River Mountain Watch, Lovett alleged that the silo approval “is part of a pattern and practice” by the DEP of “promoting the interests of coal operators at the expense of the state’s citizens and natural environment.”Manchin said that his main concern is the safety of the Marsh Fork students. But, he said, he has to trust DEP to protect those students.“I’m not knowledgeable enough in the process to jump in there and try to micromanage,” Manchin said. “I’ve got to rely on the people we have.”