Whose side is the DEP on?

Aug 10, 2011

Yesterday evening, the WV Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) hosted a hearing on the renewal of the Bee Tree mountaintop removal permit on Coal River Mountain and on the proposed new Collins Fork strip mining permit.  This hearing made it abundantly clear whose side the DEP is on - and it’s not our side.

During the hearing, people got a chance to speak with DEP officials and ask questions about the permits and also to record comments in the public record.  The DEP’s responses made it clear that they were not really interested in hearing peoples’ concerns.  One DEP representative reportedly went so far as to tell local resident Marilyn Mullens that the DEP is going to approve this permit anyway, despite the various concerns that people raised during the hearing.  “So what’s the point of having the hearing?  It’s just a show,” Mullens told me afterward.

Another highlight of the evening occurred when a different DEP representative admitted that he was against the EPA, presumably because of their efforts to step up enforcement of the Clean Water Act in the coalfields.

See this video footage by Jordan Freeman for some of the interactions during the hearing.

The manner in which the hearings were scheduled also shows the DEP’s lack of regard for community input and the law.  The public comment period for the Collins Fork permit closed three years ago; by law, DEP was supposed to hold the public hearing within three weeks.  Instead, the permit went through eight rounds of “technical revisions” that resulted in substantial changes to the permit.  The DEP never opened up a second round of public comments before holding yesterday’s hearing.  In addition, the DEP took the unusual (though not illegal) step of combining the permit hearings for two permits.

Despite the DEP’s lack of interest in addressing community concerns, about fifty residents showed up to ask questions and submit comments.  Many discussed their concern over the health impacts of mountaintop removal and the destruction of the mountains where they and their families had traditionally hunted, fished, and gathered wild plants.

“They need to put a moratorium on mountaintop removal until they can prove it’s not killing us,” said CRMW co-director Debbie Jarrell, referencing the recent health study showing elevated cancer rates in the Coal River Valley.  She added, “it’s in my generation that we’ve allowed the coal companies and WV DEP to destroy everything we’ve ever known here.”

When one CRMW volunteer pointed out that DEP’s approved reclamation plan included invasive species, the DEP representative admitted that as long as the coal company got a forester to sign off on their reclamation plan, DEP doesn’t really care what is in it.  Small wonder DEP has become known as the “Department of Easy Permits” rather than the “Department of Environmental Protection.” DEP was also heavily questioned on their reliance on industry self-reported data, failing to come up with a good response to the question of why exactly they are so trusting of the industry they are supposed to be regulating.

By Cathy Kunkel, CRMW staff