Coal bill moves to WV Senate floor, with water quality changes intact

A bill that was once aimed at dismantling West Virginia’s mine safety enforcement agency advanced Tuesday in the Senate, with remaining language aimed at helping coal companies fight water pollution lawsuits intact.

Senate Bill 687 moves now to third reading, or passage stage, on the Senate floor. It’s likely to be approved there, and would then go to the House of Delegates.

Senators defeated on a voice vote a proposed amendment by Sen. Ron Miller, D-Greenbrier, to reinsert language that would require the state Department of Environmental Protection to ensure that West Virginia’s water quality standards support “a balanced biological community that is diverse in species composition.”

That language is currently in state law, but would be removed under the bill.

“Leaving it in helps make sure we have healthy streams,” Miller said. “It would not hurt the mining industry. I wouldn’t hurt the mining industry. I want a responsible mining industry.”

Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, said that the point of removing the language is to help the coal industry to fight lawsuits brought by environmental groups.

“It opens the state up for lawsuits, with especially the Sierra Club,” said Smith, an employee of Mettiki Coal. “Most of you know the Sierra Club is not a friend of coal.”

Jason Bostic, a lobbyist for the West Virginia Coal Association, has said that the change was part of the industry’s continuing effort to fight U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidance and rulings by U.S. District Judge Robert Chambers related to water pollution discharges from mining operations. Citizen lawsuits have targeted the effects on aquatic communities and species diversity from coal mining operations in successful court actions aimed at making mine operators clean up their pollution.

Bostic said the issue is that state officials — not the EPA or federal judges — should decide how West Virginia regulates water quality.

“There is nobody in this country that can determine West Virginia’s water quality standards but the people in this building.” Bostic said at the Capitol. “Not the EPA or Judge Chambers or anybody else.”

Originally, Smith had proposed a separate bill, Senate Bill 582, as a “coal bill” that would have stripped the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training of most of its enforcement authority. That language was removed as a result of what Smith has depicted as a negotiating process that involved all interested parties. Smith said the state Department of Environmental Protection signed off on the language in Senate Bill 687.

Miller, though, noted that the West Virginia Rivers Coalition was not involved in Smith’s meetings.

“There was a stakeholder meeting on this, but not all of the stakeholders were there,” Miller said.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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