Coal’s water pollution bill moves toward passage

A bill to lessen water quality restrictions for the West Virginia coal industry advanced on Tuesday to the House floor and another step toward likely passage.

Members of the House Energy Committee approved Senate Bill 687 after voting down an amendment that would have reinserted language to require the state Department of Environmental Protection to ensure that West Virginia’s water quality standards support “a balanced aquatic community that is diverse in species composition.”

“This just puts back in the bill the little bugs in the water so the trout have something to eat,” said Delegate Bill Hamilton, an Upshur County Republican who sought the amendment.

West Virginia Coal Association lobbyists want the language removed from state law to help them fight federal court lawsuits brought by citizen groups and environmental organizations over mining discharges that scientists have linked to an erosion of water quality and to impairment of aquatic life. The legislation would leave DEP to judge the health of streams based only on whether they contain “appropriate trophic levels of fish, in streams that have flows sufficient to support fish populations.”

Committee members voted down Hamilton’s amendment on a non-unanimous voice vote after hearing from Jason Bostic, a Coal Association vice president, who explained the industry’s desire for the change. Bostic has tried to portray the industry language as standing up for West Virginia’s right to regulate its own mining industry and water quality, free from interference from what he has called an “unelected judge.”

“We firmly believe that if the Legislature doesn’t act, we are going to continue to be subjected to lawsuits in federal court — that’s federal court, not state court,” Bostic told Energy Committee members.

U.S. District Judge Robert Chambers, a former House speaker, has issued several rulings the require coal companies to address mining discharges the judge has found to be impairing state streams, and recently issued another ruling that outlined the failure of state and federal agencies to put in place required cleanup plans for streams polluted by mining.

The West Virginia Environmental Council had hoped to have a witness testify during Tuesday’s committee meeting about how scientists say that insects, crustaceans, and invertebrates are the foundation of healthy ecosystems, and that without them, the entire food chain breaks down. The committee never called on that council’s witness to speak.

Approval by the Energy Committee comes one day after the vast majority of speakers at a House public hearing spoke against the legislation.

The legislation at issue started out as Senate Bill 582, a proposal from Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee Chairman Randy Smith, R-Tucker and a Mettiki Coal employee. That bill would have eliminated most safety and health inspections or enforcement by the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training. The committee’s attorney, former Patriot Coal and Massey Energy lawyer Stephanie Ojeda, said that language came from the West Virginia Coal Association.

Smith, who sat in on Tuesday’s House committee meeting, backed off those changes and originated SB 687 in his committee. The bill makes relatively minor changes in state mine safety policy, such as combining various boards, but leaves in place the original bill’s proposals to weaken water quality and reclamation standards for coal operations.

If the bill passes the full House, it still will have to return to the Senate, because Energy Committee members amended it to extend the terms of the existing Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety until mid-2020.

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

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