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Randy Huffman, secretary of the West Virginia Department of Environental Protection
Randy Huffman, secretary of the
West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection,
has been striking a new more environmentally protective tone.
Ken Ward Jr. at the Charleston Gazette has reported another spill of coal-mining waste.

According to state authorities, run-off from melting snow sent debris from sediment control ponds into a local creek in McDowell County Wednesday. No drinking water supplies were expected to be tainted by the "blackwater" spill at the Antaeus Gary former coal slurry impoundment. The site was abandoned in 2002 after a major accident, reclaimed to the tune of $7.5 million by the Department of Environmental Protection and slated to be re-mined for leftover bits of coal.

This was the third spill in coal-related operations in West Virginia in six weeks. The messes left by the spill of a coal-washing chemical by Freedom Industries and a coal-slurry spill by Patriot Coal Corp. are still being cleaned up.

The extent of the most recent spill was not announced, but state regulators indicated that they did not consider it to be major.

Over the past couple of weeks, as environmental advocates and the media have focused on the spills, regulators seem to have moved from what early on was a whatever tone in their public statements more in the direction of what they should have been saying (and doing) all along.

Please read below the fold for more on this story.

DEP Secretary Randy Huffman, for instance, has talked about prevention as opposed to acting only after an incident occurs.

"It's easy to get trapped into accepting that, whether it's the companies or the regulators or even the community," Huffman said, "but you don't protect the environment by reacting after the fact."

After a series of blackwater spills from 2001 to 2003, two reports by the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement recommended that the DEP take more steps to prevent such incidents. The DEP rejected the OSM recommendation, saying in 2009 that the number of coal-waste spills was on the decline.

But among other things, OSM officials reported that they found it hard, using DEP inspection reports and databases, to definitively count the number of blackwater spills. Huffman said Wednesday he believes the number of spills continues to decline, but that he didn't know if the DEP had fixed the data problems outlined by the OSM.

In fact, the DEP not only rejected the OSM's recommendations, it also dismissed those in two reports from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board after a lethal chemical accident in 2008 and one in 2011 in which nobody died. The recommendations, which proposed among other things that more focused attention be given to regulating coal-related facilities, have still not been adopted.

But Huffman seems to have upped his game.

As legislation responding to the Freedom Industries leak makes its way through the Statehouse, Huffman said he wants lawmakers to remove the long list of industry-proposed exemptions to a bill to set new safety standards and inspection requirements for chemical storage tanks. Only very small tanks for things like home heating oil should be exempt, Huffman said. Any other tanks should only end up exempt if their owners can show they are governed by another equally stringent set of safety guidelines, Huffman said.

Also Wednesday, Huffman said he previously had sent agency inspectors who police a wide variety of industries out into the field for additional reviews to ensure any potential problems that might impact water supplies were addressed immediately.

Better late than never. But we'll see what happens when the media spotlight switches off. It's not as if West Virginia doesn't have a history plagued by spills that have failed to move regulators into preventive mode.

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Thu Feb 20, 2014 at 12:20 PM PST.

Also republished by Virginia Kos and Daily Kos.

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