House Bill 2566, the Coal Jobs and Safety Act of 2015, should be called the Coal Industry Bail Out Act of 2015. Testimony from Alpha Natural Resources and the WV Coal Association this week before committees in the House and Senate could not have made the intent of this act clearer. The proposal is an effort through deregulation to cut costs in a struggling industry. A major component of the bill is to create a permit shield that will attempt to enable the coal industry to escape the liability in clean-up costs of hundreds of miles of streams it has polluted through the misguided risky practice of mountaintop removal.
HB2566 will weaken water quality standards, exempt companies from narrative water quality standards, weaken mine safety regulation, and order the WVDEP to develop rules to weaken contemporaneous reclamation standards and inactive permit status requirements. Many veterans at the capitol have remarked that it is unprecedented to put mine safety and environmental reforms in the same legislation. On Thursday, February 5th we joined the UMWA in opposition to HB2566 while speaking at a public hearing on the bill before the House energy committee. Although we opposed this bill for different reasons, we commented on the same principle that this bill will do nothing to create jobs or improve safety.
The impetus for the coal industry to be pushing for a permit shield through HB2566 comes on the heels of a couple of major court decisions from US Federal District Judge Chambers finding that major impairments to streams are being caused by mountaintop removal mining. There is an inherent risk when a company blows up a mountain and fills a stream with hundreds of feet of rubble that the stream will be damaged. Citizens in the coalfields that live near these operations have been commenting on permit applications since mountaintop removal began that the practice would damage streams. The industry has been told for years their practices will damage streams and through HB2566 they are asking that the law be changed so they are not responsible for their own actions.
Given the inevitable trend of declining coal production in the region it is likely that there will soon be a point in time where few operations are producing coal and the vast majority of operations will be engaging merely in reclamation and water treatment activities. The water does not get treated and the land does not get reclaimed on its own, creating the need for employment to do it. Under this scenario the stronger the reclamation and water quality standards the more employment there will be. HB2566 will remove the ability of citizens and the WVDEP to do anything about companies poised to exit the state while leaving their pollution behind, or to leverage dollars towards employment of West Virginians to clean up coal pollution.
There are those who say it is not fair for a company to be held liable for pollution not explicitly laid out in its permit in the form of numeric limits of allowable pollutants, but when those same companies ignore pleas from citizens and contest peer reviewed science informing industry they are polluting, there is no reason for a bail out from the legislature.
HB2566 has been referred to House Judiciary. Its companion bill, SB357, will be on second reading Monday.