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Review of mine cleanup list recommended

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia regulators should examine whether hundreds of additional abandoned coal mine sites need new water pollution treatment under a legal settlement announced last week, a member of a Department of Environmental Protection advisory committee said Wednesday.

Mining engineer John Morgan urged the Special Reclamation Fund Advisory Council to look into the matter in the wake of a deal between DEP and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy to set pollution discharge limits at certain abandoned sites.

The deal, which still needs approval from U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr., applies to nearly 200 sites across the state, but Morgan pointed out the Special Reclamation program also includes roughly another 350 mines that have been abandoned since the federal strip mine law was passed in 1977.

"I'm just trying to be sure there's nothing missed," said Morgan, who represents environmental groups on the advisory council. "Do we have monitoring on all of those sites?"

The advisory council was set up a decade ago as part of a plan by the Wise administration to fix the under-funded Special Reclamation program and stave off a potential federal takeover of the program.

This year, though, the Legislature ignored the advisory panel's recommendation to double a state coal tax that funds mine cleanups, after DEP Secretary Randy Huffman wrote to lawmakers to oppose the council recommendation.

Now, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy is seeking to reopen a federal court lawsuit aimed at forcing the U.S. Office of Surface Mining to take over the mine cleanup program. At the same time, Conservancy lawyers got DEP to agree to the water pollution plan settlement after winning two lawsuits against the agency over the matter.

The Conservancy and its lawyers have spent years trying to reform the reclamation program, which has long lacked adequate resources because reclamation bonds and coal industry taxes weren't set high enough to cover cleanup costs.

The new settlement could end up especially expensive, given the potential for covering long-term costs of treating acid mine drainage from the abandoned sites.

State and federal officials and industry lobbyists at Wednesday's meeting weren't especially supportive of Morgan's proposal.

Bill Raney, the West Virginia Coal Association's representative to the advisory council, said he didn't hear about DEP's legal settlement on water treatment until after the deal was reached.

Ken Ellison, director of DEP's Division of Land Restoration, said he's not sure that the agency's legal settlement extends to the other sites and would have to consult with agency lawyers.

Roger Calhoun, director of OSM's Charleston field office, said his staff spent the better part of a year helping DEP compile the list of sites that was eventually used in the legal settlement.

"The list that everybody sued over is the list we spent all that time putting together," Calhoun said. "I'm not real anxious to go back and revisit that."

Calhoun conceded, though, that the effort was not based on whether sites met stringent water quality standards now required by recent court rulings.

For years, when DEP treated water pollution at special reclamation sites it did not provide treatment adequate to comply with water quality standards. In separate lawsuits, two federal judges ruled that DEP must set pollution limits at those sites based on water quality standards.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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