A coalition of 18 state and national organizations on June 24 filed an administrative law petition with the U.S. Office of Surface Mining alleging widespread problems with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) enforcement of federal coal mining law and demanding federal intervention.
The nearly 100-page petition details a “litany” of alleged problems with the state regulatory program, including granting and renewing mining permits illegally, systemic failures to properly assess the risks of flooding from mine sites, drastic understaffing, and failure to assess meaningful penalties for violations of the law, said the Sierra Club in a June 24 statement.
“The situation here couldn’t be more urgent. Every year there is another flood, another stream dies, another health study comes out showing the devastating effects of unenforced mining law on our communities. We need action and we need it now,” said Debbie Jarrell, Coal River Valley resident and Co-Director of Coal River Mountain Watch.
The filing of the petition is the first step for the Citizen Action for Real Enforcement (CARE) Campaign, which is a new effort bringing together citizens and groups across the state to demand accountability from the state’s government and address what they say are decades of failures by state agencies.
The June 24 petition was filed under a provision of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA) that allows citizens to ask the federal OSM to take over a state agency if they believe the agency is failing to enforce the law. The filing of this petition triggers an obligation on the part of OSM to investigate the citizens’ claims and, if they are deemed valid, to order changes in the state program or assume enforcement themselves.
Chronic understaffing has left the program unable to meet its obligations, the petition said. Dozens of vacant positions in the mining program have left each inspector responsible for over 15,000 acres and hundreds of mandatory inspections are not performed every year. Even when inspections do occur, the enforcement actions are inadequate, they claimed. One mine that received 57 violations in a 58-month period received just under $76,000 in fines with no greater penalties. Violations are often not issued at all, the groups said.
An independent consulting firm, Bioengineering Group, found systematic errors in the DEP’s method for determining the risk of flooding from surface mining, the groups added. This has resulted in permits that do not adequately protect communities from flooding, they said. This has resulted in devastating flooding in counties throughout southern West Virginia, including floods in Fayette and Raleigh counties in 2001, McDowell County in 2001 and 2002, and Mingo County in 2009, the groups said.
They added that the DEP has also resisted using the best science in regards to water pollution from selenium and conductivity from mining sites.