By Cindy Rank
Spring has sprung, the grass is riz, I wonder where the sanity is …
Here we are, every month or so expounding on successful federal court challenges of the coal industry at one or another mine sites where water discharges from those mines are causing damage to the health of the receiving stream, damage to the bugs and the ecological diversity of those streams, and to current and future users of those streams. (For a recent example, see Court of Appeals Enforces Conductivity Rules in the February, 2017, issue of The Highlands Voice).
We rely on the federal Clean Water Act and the companion state law and regulations that implement that federal law in the state of West Virginia.
Upon our appeals, the court, after thousands of reams of paper and days of expert testimony, has found that this or that company is guilty of violations of federal and state law. The court then orders those companies to control and treat their water discharges so that water flowing from their mine sites doesn’t compromise and pollute the receiving streams.
Simple, no ?
Well, I guess not if you’re the company out of compliance.
Sometimes – most often – those clean up measures are expensive. But that is necessarily part and parcel of operating expenses, the cost of doing business, and should be absorbed as such. [Of course we don’t delude ourselves and know full well that those costs are passed on to the consumer of the coal or electricity or whatever is the final by-product of that mining, etc.]
Bottom line is that paying what by the industry is assumed to be “extra” cost is not acceptable to them … So coal companies appeal to whatever authoritative body that might be responsive to its so-called ‘needs’.
In many instances that turns out to be the state legislature – or the Congress on the national level.
Here in the spring of 2017 the coal industry is appealing [once again] to the WV state legislature to save it from what it assumes to be unacceptable requirements to protect the health of streams, to preserve the aquatic life and ecosystems of the streams we all rely on for drinking, recreation, industrial development, etc…..
“Surely there are less restrictive standards to protect streams than those that are currently required by WV [and federal] law” we hear them cry. …. “Please, please, release us from these over-protective requirements that make us pay attention to small bugs. “
SB 687 has passed out of the Senate and gone to the House as we publish the April issue of The Highlands Voice. We can only hope that the Legislature pushes this aside as they consider other pieces of legislation more worthy of their time and consideration. May it have died somewhere in the last day of the legislature by the time you read this.
Companies can meet these requirements without crying to the legislature to reduce the responsibility of preserving clean water for all of the state’s citizens and visitors.
SB 687 as-is would make our narrative water quality standards one of the weakest in the nation
What is a narrative water quality standard?
Narrative standards are based on the numbers and types of animals living in streams (as opposed to numeric limits on particular chemical pollutants). They are not violated until pollution actually kills the animals which would otherwise naturally inhabit waterways in the state. They serve as an ultimate backstop to protect streams from dying.
What does the coal bill change for stream protections?
It removes what nearly every other state uses – the assessment of macroinvertebrates (aka “bugs”) as the most scientifically sound way to measure a stream’s biological health. The note intended to be included on the original bill made this clear: “The purpose of this bill to clarify that any rules promulgated to measure compliance with the aquatic life component of West Virginia’s narrative water quality standards do not necessarily have to be consistent with the West Virginia Stream Condition Index or other indices that focus on the presence or absence of certain benthic invertebrates.”
Why must we maintain stream health assessments based on invertebrates?
Insects, crustaceans, and invertebrates are the foundation of a healthy ecosystem. Without them, the entire food chain breaks down. Loss of invertebrate populations is an early signal that pollution is damaging life in a stream. If the state moves to assessing stream life based on fish or the ability to support fish, not only will West Virginia be at the bottom for the weakest narrative quality standards in the country, but it will be severely limited in accurately measuring the health of its waterways.
What is the cost?
We would no longer have the most accurate method for determining if a stream is “impaired” due to water quality standards violations stemming from coal mining or other diverse forms of pollution. Under the Clean Water Act, an improvement plan known as a TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) must be developed for impaired streams. This change aims to avoid impairment determinations and TMDLs. It would turn a blind eye to problems in our waters until it’s too late, and the state will be further burdened with more restoration costs. Additionally, since fish are much harder and more expensive to sample, this bill would make it more costly for WVDEP to comply with the federal requirement to measure the biological health of waterways in West Virginia.