The Tarnish Deepens to Corrosion

Corruption at the Highest Levels of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection

By Jon Hunter

(From an article in the June 26, 1998, issue of the Charleston Gazette. Forwarded on WISe by Dave Saville)

THE West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection is constantly embroiled in controversy. During the last year, there has been a constant stream of negative revelations concerning the agency.

Recent news reports revealed that 61 mountaintop removal permits were issued by the DEP illegally, without any plans for after-mining improvements.

The New York Times, U.S. News & World Report and ABC's Nightline have detailed the devastation caused by mountaintop removal in West Virginia, setting back our state's image that we have worked so hard to improve over the last 10 years.

Members of the West Virginia United Methodist Conference passed a resolution calling for an immediate halt to mountaintop removal until a scientific study gauges its effect on human life and the environment, something the law mandates already.

Gov. Underwood's response was to appoint a task force to study the mountaintop removal issue. Not surprisingly, the governor weighted the task force heavily with coal industry officials, regulators and consultants.

Underwood, over objections of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and his own DEP, signed a law which makes it less costly for coal operators to cut off mountaintops and dump soil and rocks into valleys. The EPA is now delaying new strip-mining permits because of the relaxed requirements of the new law, and is considering requiring comprehensive environmental impact statements on new mining permits. Underwood’s response is a not-so-veiled threat to get the current EPA director fired, instead of looking seriously at the violations of federal laws.

The DEP approved the issuance of 91 after-the-fact construction permits, even though state laws require approval before work commences. Only 34 of the companies received fines, which generally were low. Companies obviously feel the benefits of starting work without the required permits outweigh the potential penalties. Companies should not be allowed to make enormous profits by violating our laws. In fact, the law supposedly forbids it. It's unfair to the vast majority of companies who are not lawbreakers.

The supervisor in charge of the reclamation of old coal mines at the DEP was himself permit-barred by coal regulators. In addition, a DEP mine inspector was accused during a federal trial of extorting guns and cocaine from a coal company.

Underwood's new DEP chief, Michael Miano, is reportedly being investigated by federal regulators for conflict-of-interest violations. Miano’s ties to the coal industry may cause him to be excluded by the Feds from all permitting and enforcement activities relating to the coal industry. The governor’s office should have known of this law before appointing Miano. The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition charged in a lawsuit that Miano cannot serve as director of the DEP because of his coal industry conflict.

Wendy Radcliff, who has served as environmental advocate at the DEP under four different directors, announced her resignation. Radcliff, obviously frustrated, cited differences of opinion with the Underwood administration over the handling of environmental protection as one of her reasons for leaving.

Meanwhile, the DEP hired a $10,000 image consultant to improve its image. The consultant, like Michael Miano and the previous DEP director, John Caffrey, is a former employee of U.S. Steel.

West Virginia's DEP should not expect its image to improve until dramatic changes are made at the agency. The DEP must again focus on its core mission - protecting the air, water and natural beauty of West Virginia.

Personally, I question the impact of mountaintop mining on mining employment. It is once again a case of more machines and fewer miners. I understand that surface mining (most from mountaintop removal) now accounts for about 40 percent of our state's total coal production. I do not envision the recently passed "mitigation bill" as helping the large number of unemployed miners in my district, or for that matter unemployed coal miners in any part of West Virginia.

Jon Hunter is a West Virginia State Senator _