By Ken Ward
The Charleston Gazette-Mail
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A bill that consolidates some state coal oversight boards and lessens a water quality restriction for the mining industry was overwhelmingly approved by the House of Delegates on Friday.
House members voted 94-6 to pass Senate Bill 687. The legislation now goes back to the Senate because the House changed the dates for terms of the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety.
The West Virginia Coal Association has been pushing the legislation, saying that changes in the state’s water quality statute will help put a stop to citizen group lawsuits that have prompted court orders for individual mine operators and for state and federal regulators to clean up mining discharges that have damaged streams and aquatic life. Coal industry officials have said the bill won’t necessarily bring back larger numbers of coal jobs, but will help the state compete for a smaller coal market.
House Energy Committee Co-Chairman Mark Zatezalo, R-Hancock, said that the environmental provisions of the bill were agreed to by officials from the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Zatezalo said that the legislation does not actually change the state’s water quality standards, but instead makes “minor changes” in how state code requires those standards to be interpreted.
The language at issue is an existing part of a section of West Virginia law that requires the DEP to write a new rule for how it will measure compliance with the state’s “narrative” water quality standard. While most water standards set numeric pollution limits, the narrative standard more generally prohibits conditions that “adversely alters the integrity of the waters of the state” or involves significant adverse impacts to the “chemical, physical, hydrologic, or biological components of aquatic ecosystems.”
Currently, the law requires DEP to include in those rules an evaluation of stream health that will determine if the stream “supports a balanced aquatic community that is diverse in species composition.”
On Thursday, an amendment that sought to re-insert that sentence into the bill was defeated on an 89-10 vote.
No one spoke against the bill during the House floor session Friday. Voting against the bill were Delegates Fleischauer, Isner, Moore, Pushkin, Pyles, and Rowe. Four delegates who voted to re-insert the water quality language in Thursday’s amendment then voted in favor of the bill. They were Delegates Hornbuckle, Lynch, Miley, and White.
The legislation, including the water quality changes, started out as Senate Bill 582, a proposal from Energy, Industry and Mining Committee Chairman Randy Smith, R-Tucker and a Mettiki Coal employee. That bill would have eliminated most safety and health inspections or enforcement by the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training. Smith backed off those changes and originated SB 687 in his committee. The bill makes relatively minor changes in state mine safety policy, such as combining various boards, but left in place the original bill’s proposals to weaken water quality and reclamation standards for coal operations.
The new bill transfers functions of the state’s Mine Inspectors’ Examining Board, the Board of Miner Training, Education and Certification, and the Mine Safety Technology Task Force to the Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety.
It leaves two other panels, the Board of Appeals and the Coal Mine Safety and Technical Review Committee, intact. The bill also contains language to eliminate a board related to the use of diesel equipment in underground mines, but that board actually was abolished two years ago. It also requires all mines to include in their first-aid equipment an automated external defibrillator.
The Senate passed Senate Bill 582 on a 32-2 vote last week.
The West Virginia Environmental Council and other citizen groups have said Smith wrongly characterized the legislation as an “agreed-to bill.” While DEP signed off on the water quality language, environmental groups were not involved in Smith’s negotiations, those groups said.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at [email protected], 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.