By: Jim Kotcon, Sierra Club West Virginia Chapter Conservation Chair. Originally published in the Mountain State Sierran
Legislative issues will soon be dominating headlines. Some key issues will carry over from previous years, including efforts to help transition coal communities affected by the decline in the coal industry. The WV Legislature has been conducting listening sessions in coal communities to seek suggestions on how to help those communities thrive as they transition to a new economy.
Efforts to protect water quality will also be high on the priority list, as changes to water quality regulations are being proposed. Of greatest concern is an effort to allow “case-by-case” standards as part of a water pollution permit process. Currently, all permits are expected to meet state water quality standards, but this new provision would allow an industry to seek weaker standards and would give much less time for the public to respond.
A major concern for the Sierra Club is the very weak bonding requirements for coal mines and gas wells. Currently these companies are required to file a bond to assure mine sites are reclaimed and gas wells are plugged. This bond is essential because there is no other incentive for a company to reclaim their site once the coal or gas is gone. In fact, the Legislature in 2021 adopted a bill to require full cost bonding for wind and solar energy facilities, too. An immediate concern is that the bonds for coal mines are much too low. While costs to reclaim mine sites can exceed $10,000 per acre, the bond is capped at $5,000. As coal companies go bankrupt, reneging on their reclamation responsibilities is consistently one of their first acts. West Virginia established a “Special Reclamation Fund” based on a tax on coal mined, and this fund is supposed to cover the costs of reclaiming mines for bankrupt companies. However, the Special Reclamation Fund is woefully inadequate to cover all the mines currently facing bankruptcy, and the WV Legislature and the WV Department of Environmental Protection have been slow to address this shortfall. Not too far behind is the WV gas industry. While recent legislation was intended to speed up plugging of abandoned or non- producing wells, the amounts do not appear to be anywhere near adequate for the size of the problem. Leaking gas wells spew pollutants into our water and air, and natural gas (methane) is one of the most potent greenhouse gasses. While a bond of $5,000 is required for a single well, current legislation allows a company with multiple wells to file a “blanket bond” of $50,000 for all their wells. Unfortunately, delaying well plugging and reclamation is a common operating practice for many companies, leaving a legacy of pollution.
What You Can Do
As always, we will continue to oppose efforts by industry to weaken pollution standards. Starting now, you can contact your legislators and ask that they work to shore up existing bond requirements for coal mines and gas wells. Tell them that full cost bonding should be required for coal and gas, just as it is for industrial- scale wind or solar facilities.
The WV Sierra Club will again be working with the WV Environmental Council during the 2022 Legislative session. You can learn more, including how to subscribe to their weekly Legislative Updates, at https://wvecouncil.org. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (304) 594-3322.