The West Virginia Legislature is considering a broad-reaching bill, backed by the coal industry, that would roll back the most basic protections offered to streams in West Virginia. Senate Bill 687 is proposed as a direct push back on citizen lawsuits, which have been successfully litigated in West Virginia federal courts and upheld on appeal, but its impacts are actually much greater.
The bill strikes at the very heart of the Clean Water Act, and would put West Virginia last, or nearly so, in stream protection standards among all the states.
For decades, West Virginia, like nearly every other state, has relied upon the collection and identification of insects, crustaceans, and invertebrates — “bugs” in streams — to assess the biological health of waterways. Bugs form the foundation of the food chain upon which fish, amphibians, and even terrestrial wildlife depend. Generally, if bugs are healthy, so are streams. When we see the right bugs we know there is a solid base on which the stream ecosystem can depend.
Ask any serious trout-fisher. He or she will be familiar with the diverse array of organisms that live on or under rocks in natural streams. An angler’s fly-tying patterns mimic mayflies, caddisflies, hellgrammites, crayfish, and other critters because they are the food trout and many other animals eat. Collectively, they are referred to as macroinvertebrates — that is, invertebrates you can see without a microscope.
Under the Clean Water Act, rivers, streams, and wetlands must be able to support a healthy community of aquatic life. As a result, each state has developed “narrative water quality standards” based on the number and types of animals living in streams. These narrative standards serve as the ultimate backstop for protection: they are not violated until pollution is bad enough to actually kill the animals which would otherwise naturally inhabit in waterways within the state.
In a stream, macroinvertebrates are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. They are the perfect animals upon which to base narrative standards and assess the health of an aquatic community. As the base of the food chain, they are critically important to the ecosystem. They reproduce relatively quickly and are, therefore, fast to respond to new pollution. They cannot move very far, so will be exposed to disruptions in their environment.
Additionally, they are cheap and easy to collect. You don’t need much more than a net, a bucket, and a good pair of waders to catch thousands in less than an hour. Because macroinvertebrates are so well-suited to this kind of assessment, they are used ubiquitously by state and federal regulators, research scientists, and citizen monitors everywhere to assess the health of streams. Every credible university in the United States has a professor familiar with macroinvertebrate assessment and its importance. All of the states surrounding West Virginia (including Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Maryland, Ohio and Pennsylvania) base their narrative water quality standards on the assessment of macroinvertebrates.
Macroinvertebrates are such good indicators of pollution that the coal industry wants to reduce the reliance on macroinvertebrates as a basis for compliance with narrative water quality standards. After all, they are first animals to die when streams are impacted. Coal companies would prefer to legally kill West Virginia’s streams quietly, and finish their mining operations long before anyone has realized what happened. This is why they have pushed Senate Bill 687, which focuses only on observations of fish. For almost every reason macroinvertebrates are good animals for assessment, fish are terrible. Fish have multi-year life cycles and, therefore, respond very slowly to impacts to their environment. They can move in and out of polluted waterways, and may be found in damaged streams even if they do not typically live there. They are not easy or cheap to catch, and they are much harder to study. In fact, despite five years of effort, West Virginia has not been able to establish a reliable method for evaluating fish to meet narrative water quality standards.
If Senate Bill 687 passes as-is, it will eliminate an accurate and reliable method for evaluating whether West Virginia streams can support healthy aquatic communities and replace it with one that is untested and scientifically dubious. The most basic protection of the Clean Water Act will be undermined.
West Virginia will become one of, if not the worst state in America, in terms of stream protection. All of this will result for the benefit of a coal industry that finds it inconvenient to comply with the law and to conduct their operations in ways that allow stream life to survive and thrive.
If SB 687 passes as-is, more than our streams will be imperiled. Established science will have been abandoned in favor of the narrow interests of a single industry. And with it, the progress made toward clean, healthy waters for the people of West Virginia.
Angie Rosser is the executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, a statewide nonprofit organization promoting healthy rivers and streams for the enjoyment of all West Virginians.