Thursday, June 12

On the perils of getting obsessive about a particular solution, plus a brief return to Appalachian mountaintop removal

In my June 3 post on strip mining for coal in Appalachia by removing mountaintops, I neglected to add a link to a news report that underscored one of the factors I cited as stymieing attempts to stop mountaintop removal. I've now decided to republish the entire news report (below) because I've noted that its implications are much broader than the mountaintop issue. 

In one situation after another over the decades, environmental protection organizations have tended to get boxed into a specific approach to fighting an environmental issue.  That's understandable when it comes to deciding where to put donation money to fight on a specific issue, and of course every approach is limited by the scientific studies of a particular era.

But as soon as a political agenda (and tax money) gets mixed up with a particular proposed solution, and this happens a lot, people get wedded to specific data sets, to the extent that they ignore other ones.  Nowhere is this problem more evident than in government-backed attempts to deal with global warming. State governments and the federal government got fixated on transportation and energy issues.  So we got ethanol, solar panels, carbon taxes and draconian legislation to limit car emissions.

Meanwhile, desertification fell through the cracks.  Also, flood management, subsidence management, drought management, water conservation -- through the cracks.  So now we're staring down the barrel of disaster in this country because of all those greatly neglected issues.  On the water conservation issue alone, on May 23, 24/7 Wall Street reported that seven (7) U.S. states were running out of water, and that at the current rate of water usage California was on track to run out of water within two (2) years.

I think I'm going to expand in later posts on the theme of obsessive behavior as it applies to government-backed solutions that depend on scientific data, but to return to the mountaintop removal issue here's the place in the June 3 post where I neglected to add a link. I wrote:
The Sierra Club in particular along with other big political actors on environmental issues had long ago taken up the cause against mountaintop removal. But they'd focused on one issue, which is the toxic effect on water sources from mountaintop removal.  This allowed opponents in the coal industry to round up their own scientific experts to contest the environmentalist-funded studies on the water contamination issue.

And so the two sides have gone round and round for decades, as the humanitarian crisis in Appalachia has gotten worse and worse, and the many other negative impacts of mountaintop removal have received little scientific study.
 Here is the news report I meant to link to in that passage, and which discusses the Sierra Club's latest setback in the fight to stop mountaintop removal:

Court lets DEP use lower standard on pollution reviews 
By Ken Ward Jr., Staff writer
West Virginia Gazette
May 30, 2014

The state Supreme Court on Friday upheld a decision that allowed the Department of Environmental Protection to avoid tougher permit reviews and tighter water pollution limits for mountaintop removal mining operations.

Justices concluded that Kanawha Circuit Judge James Stucky was right to throw out a previous decision by the state Environmental Quality Board in a case brought by the Sierra Club over an Arch Coal permit for a mountaintop removal operation in Monongalia County.

In an 11-page decision, the justices said they were “not persuaded” that there is “adequate agreement in the scientific community” to trigger the DEP to conduct a more detailed analysis of potential water quality problems involving sulfate, conductivity or total dissolved solid pollution related to the proposed mining.

Justices also criticized what they called the “arbitrary nature” of the board’s order, saying board members “offered no discussion” about the relationship between that kind of analysis and potential compliance with the state’s water quality standards.

The court ruled through an unsigned decision that was agreed to by Chief Justice Robin Jean Davis and Justices Menis E. Ketchum and Allen H. Loughry II. Justices Brent Benjamin and Margaret Workman dissented.

At issue in the case was the DEP’s approval of a water pollution permit for Arch Coal subsidiary Patriot Mining Co.’s new Hill West Mine along Scotts Run near Cassville.

Sierra Club lawyers argued the DEP wrongly did not perform a “reasonable potential analysis” of the mine’s possible sulfate, total dissolved solids (or TDS), and conductivity pollution. They argued that such studies would have forced the DEP to include additional water pollution limits in the permit.

The environmental board had ruled in 2012 that a growing body of science demonstrated that discharges from surface coal mines in Appalachian are strongly correlated with and cause increased levels of conductivity, sulfate and TDS in water bodies downstream from mines.

“The science also demonstrates that these discharges cause harm to aquatic life and significant adverse impacts to aquatic ecosystems in these streams,” the board said.

Board members said that DEP “overlooked or discounted information that, had it been considered, would have compelled” the agency to include additional pollution limits to prevent violations of the state’s water quality standards. Board members ruled that evidence of water quality damage from existing mining in the state’s coalfields was “un-refuted” by witnesses from the DEP or the mining company.

But in his decision last year, Stucky ruled that the board was wrong not to defer to the DEP’s conclusions about the science, the mine’s potential impacts, and whether the permit should be issued. “After a thorough review of the record, it is evident that the EQB accorded no deference to WVDEP’s interpretation of water-quality standards,” the judge wrote.

The Supreme Court steered clear of that issue, saying that justices disagreed that the case “involves a question of deference to the WVDEP’s authority.” The court said there was “no evidence” that at the time the permit was approved the DEP had developed relevant formal policies to which the EQB could have deferred.

“Rather, this issue appears to be a question of whether the EQB had a sufficient basis for remanding the permit to the WVDEP with the requirement that the WVDEP conduct reasonable potential analyses and set effluent limitations for sulfate, conductivity, and TDS to meet state narrative water quality standards,” the court said.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at or 304-348-1702.


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