Gov. Jim Justice on Wednesday doubled down on his criticism of his own state Department of Environmental Protection, using a speech to a group of oil and gas operators to increase his attacks on the way he says DEP inspectors dress when they inspect coal mines and other industrial sites across West Virginia.
The governor again promised that the agency would stop saying “no” to the state’s businesses, but refused to cite any examples of the DEP having actually done so.
“First of all, they don’t need to show up in a tank top and flip-flops on and haven’t shaved in three months and look at you and say, ‘By God, you’re not doing that,’ ” Justice said. “They can at least look like something and the first words out of their mouth can be, ‘Some way, somehow, if this is what you’re wanting to do, we’re going to try to help you within the constraints of the law,’ ” the governor said.
Justice’s remarks drew loud applause from the crowd at the Charleston Marriott, where the governor spoke Wednesday morning to the annual winter meeting of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia, one of the two lobby groups for the state’s oil and gas industry.
As he did during his State of the State address last week, Justice offered his support for “joint development and lease integration,” the industry’s terms for what critics call “forced pooling,” or legislation that would allow gas companies to force holdout mineral rights owners to sign a lease for drilling.
“I’m going to make a lot of people mad, probably, but I cannot understand why in the world we can’t get that through,” Justice said. “I would be an absolute proponent of it.”
In 2015, a forced pooling bill died in the Legislature, defeated by an unusual combination of progressive and conservative lawmakers who said the measure took away private property rights.
Last year, a similar bill never really got moving, after a Gazette-Mail article outlined connections between the gas industry and one of the bill’s main backers.
After his speech on Wednesday, in a brief discussion with news reporters, Justice emphasized, “We need to help [the industry] with all these lease issues that they have and everything, not to the point of invading our people, but we need to try to help them.”
The governor joked that perhaps only 20 percent to 25 percent of the gas industry officials in the room voted for him, and that “We’re all West Virginians, at least I hope a lot of you are.” An unresolved criticism of the boom in the state’s Marcellus Shale gas region is that too many of the jobs created are going to nonresidents who were brought into West Virginia from historic gas-producing states like Oklahoma and Texas.
Justice said he also expects oil and gas producers to do their part for the state, by supporting his proposal for a tiered severance tax system that would reduce gas and coal taxes when mineral prices are down, but increase them when prices rise.
The governor said, though, that he wants to help the smaller oil and gas producers who he said are, “pulling your hair out in every way, shape and form or fashion, from what I understand, by this storage tank issue and ongoing food fight with the DEP, and on and on and on.”
Natural gas lobbyists and their backers in the Legislature have tried for several years to pass a wholesale exemption for the industry to the above-ground storage tank legislation passed in the wake of the January 2014 chemical spill at Freedom Industries, which contaminated the drinking water supply for hundreds of thousands of residents and businesses in Charleston and surrounding communities. Last year, the DEP successfully defended its chemical tank rules against a legal challenge filed by the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia.
On Wednesday, the governor continued his criticism of the DEP, following up on his State of the State address, when he alleged that agency inspectors appeared at state businesses while “wearing T-shirts and old jeans” and “not having shaved in forever.”
“I want the world to know, I don’t want to damage the environment in any way,” Justice said in his speech. “I don’t want to damage the water in any way. But you and I both know just this, that if a person comes to you and comes to you with an attitude of can-do versus coming to you with a badge in their pocket and trying every way in the world not to do, you can’t get to first base.
“I will absolutely give you my word beyond belief that I will not allow it to happen,” the governor said. “Absolutely, we’ve got to change. Our DEP needs to function just this way. They are not happy with me about this, but this is just the way I feel.”
Last week, a three-year U.S. Office of Surface Mining investigation documented persistent failures by the DEP to enforce state rules governing the coal industry, including a lack of proper water quality monitoring, poor oversight of reclamation standards and inconsistent efforts to ensure mountaintop removal doesn’t cause localized flooding. And on Tuesday, a federal judge harshly criticized the DEP for its “plodding” efforts at writing legally mandated cleanup plans for streams contaminated with coal industry pollution.
But during the discussion with reporters after his speech, Justice refused to provide any specific examples to support his repeated statements that the DEP as an agency far too often simply says “no” to business and industry in a way that makes economic development in the state difficult.
“No, I don’t know that,” the governor said. “You hear horror stories, and they may be absolutely justified in every way. Our DEP people are good people. For crying out loud, I’m not going to get into a food fight with [the] DEP in any way, shape, form or fashion. All I want all of our agencies to do is to try any and every way they can to help. Not to the extent of violation of the law or to the detriment of our environment or water in any way.
“All I want them to do is try to expedite, try to move things faster, try to just — as a businessman, we all feel better when we at least feel like everybody is in the boat paddling together,” the governor said.
Asked if he thinks his comments about DEP inspectors’ appearance during inspections makes the agency’s employees feel like they are in the boat, paddling with the governor to move the state forward, Justice said, “No. But in all honesty, in a lot of ways, that happens at times. You know, if you’re a businessman and you’re trying to invest money in West Virginia and you’re trying to do right by the environment and right by water, you expect people to look the part of a professional when they come and address your concerns.”
Asked if his comments about DEP inspectors’ manner of dress were an observation from personal experience, Justice said, “Absolutely. I’ve seen inspectors dressed very, very poorly, and it’s not good. Now, I don’t see that every day, but we should never see that. That’s all there is to it. We should never see that.”
In the past few years, Justice’s coal operations and other businesses have had run-ins with state and federal environmental regulators.
In December 2005, companies owned by Justice agreed to pay a $220,000 fine to the DEP and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to resolve allegations that the firms illegally built 20 dams on a Monroe County hunting and fishing preserve without first obtaining Clean Water Act permits.
Last year, Justice’s companies agreed to pay a $900,000 fine and spend more than $5 million on environmental improvements to resolve thousands of water pollution violations at mines in West Virginia and four other states. The DEP declined to take part in that enforcement deal, with then-Secretary Randy Huffman saying the state recently had taken enforcement action against the company and it was “unnecessary to double down on them.”
On Wednesday, Justice refused to specifically discuss a move by his new DEP secretary, former coal executive Austin Caperton, to grant a request from the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association that the agency remove language from a natural gas industry permit that was intended to protect residents in the Marcellus region from “unreasonable noise and light” from industry compressor stations. The DEP had put that language into the rule in December 2015 to address repeated complaints from residents who live near compressor stations. The agency successfully defended the rule against an industry legal challenge. The language was removed from the rule less than two weeks after Caperton took office, on the same day that he fired the DEP’s environmental advocate and its communications director.
“[The] DEP does so many constructive, good things, I’m not going to specifically comment on just that, but I’m going to tell you that the heart of [the] DEP is good,” Justice said. “And we just need, in my view, a better presentation. There are so many things, many, many, many things that [the] DEP does every day that are great.”
Asked for some examples of those things, Justice declined to answer, saying he wanted to allow a different reporter to ask a question.