Gov. Jim Justice promised Wednesday night that on his watch West Virginia business and industry would stop hearing “no” from the state Department of Environmental Protection, an 800-person agency whose rank-and-file inspectors the governor singled out for harsh criticism for — the governor alleged — wearing “T-shirts and old jeans” and “not having shaved in forever.”
In his first State of the State address, Justice made it clear he’s told new DEP Secretary Austin Caperton, a former coal executive, that he expects significant changes in the way the agency operates. Justice again projected what most experts say is an unlikely return to booming times for West Virginia’s coal industry, cheered on continued success in natural gas production and repeated his hope for major growth in timbering to fuel a new furniture-making sector.
The governor repeated his call for some sort of “tiered” severance tax system that he said would help coal operators when the industry is struggling, but milk mining companies for tax dollars if prices and production are high. Justice also offered support for some version of a controversial “forced pooling” bill that could make holdout mineral owners sign leases.
But what most citizen group leaders were talking about after Justice’s speech was his pointed attack on DEP inspectors, and his promise that the agency — which most environmental groups don’t exactly see as tough on industry — would be reined in and made more friendly to new, existing and expanding businesses.
“This is alarming,” said John Street, the lead lobbyist for the West Virginia Environmental Council. “I followed his comments about regulatory agencies and I don’t know who he is talking about.”
Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, said she can’t understand the “mixed message” that Justice sends when he talks about promoting tourism in the state, but trying to dismantle or weaken environmental regulatory agencies.
“It’s like he wants to give free rein to businesses and the way they operate and move leeway to the polluters,” Rosser said. “I don’t understand how you can say that and then say we’re going to enforce the laws and protect the environment.”
Like most West Virginia political candidates last year, Justice campaigned on a promise to continue opposition to U.S. Environmental Protection policies on coal, had Democrat Hillary Clinton won the presidential race. But the Justice campaign said little, if anything, about DEP’s state policies on environmental permitting, regulation-setting or enforcement. Two weeks into his job at DEP, Caperton fired the agency’s environmental advocate and its communications director, moves environmental groups saw as hostile to public involvement in regulatory decisions.
The governor made his views of DEP’s role in state government and West Virginia’s economy even more abundantly clear Wednesday night.
“So many times our regulatory agencies absolutely, no matter what on earth we try to do, they’re there to tell you ‘no,’ ” the governor said. “They’re not there to tell us ‘no.’ ”
Under his administration, the governor said, “No matter what the request may be, I think the first words out of their mouths should be we’re going to try with all in us to do what you want to do.”
If that wasn’t enough, Justice blasted the DEP’s inspection force for their appearance, just a few days after Caperton told employees that part of the agency’s budget cutting effort would slice the uniform allowance inspectors receive.
“I told Austin Caperton, I said, Austin, we have people come from everywhere with any kind of business request under the sun,“ Justice said. “A lot of times our inspectors show up, and they show up, and I hate to say this because you’re going to probably think, ‘has he really lost it now?’ But they show up with a T-shirt on and an old pair of jeans and they maybe haven’t shaved in forever. And they got a badge in their pocket.
“Listen, I think they ought to look like something,” the governor said, to loud applause from the joint legislative session attending his speech. “And they will look like something or we’ll have them out tending to Grizzly Adams.”
Justice insisted his agenda wasn’t aimed and wouldn’t harm the state’s environment.
“Now I underline — underline, underline, underline — nobody loves the outdoors as much as me,” the governor said. “Nobody loves the waters as much as me. We’re not going to break the law. We’re not going to do anything to damage the environment to the best of our abilities ... but we are not going to just say no.”
Justice’s coal operations have had their own run-ins with environmental regulators. But last year, when the federal EPA settled thousands of water pollution violations by Justice’s Southern Coal for a $900,000 in fines and $5 million in environmental improvement measures, then-DEP Secretary Randy Huffman turned down a potential state share of the fine because the state had recently taken enforcement action against Southern Coal and Huffman said he didn’t see any reason to “double down” on the company.
Justice offered no specific examples in his address of actions DEP has taken in any permitting matter, enforcement case, or rulemaking to support his criticism of the agency.
After the speech, lobbyists for the state’s coal, natural gas and manufacturing industries welcomed the governor’s talk of a DEP that would be more friendly to their companies. But all of them also said that they already viewed their relationship with agency officials as professional, productive, and cooperative.
Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said that he views any movement toward helping the mining industry rebuild as positive, but that his members have no serious disagreements or problems working with Harold Ward, who has for several years been acting director of the DEP Division of Mining and Reclamation.
“We’ve had some difficulties sporadically with permitting,” Raney said. “But in the last few years there has been an effort to try to work through things.“
Likewise, Charlie Burd, president of the West Virginia Independent Oil and Gas Association, said he welcomes efforts to make the regulatory climate more friendly, but that DEP oil and gas chief James Martin and his staff have “implemented fairly the rules that apply to our agency.”
Rebecca McPhail, president of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, said that while “increasingly the timeliness of permit issuance” would help make her members more competitive for investments in state facilities, her members “have enjoyed a cooperative working relationship with the DEP.”
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