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Another Federal Court Orders West Virginia to Clean Up Toxic Drainage from Abandoned Coal Mines

Another Federal Court Orders West Virginia to Clean Up Toxic Drainage from Abandoned Coal Mines

For the second time this year, Public Justice has won major decision, requiring West Virginia to clean up toxic acid mine drainage from abandoned coal mines so that discharges comply with water pollution limits.
 
The Aug. 24, ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia could also force the state to make the coal companies pay for millions of dollars’ worth of pollution reductions.
 
Public Justice sued the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) for violating the federal Clean Water Act by writing pollution permits with discharge limits at 21 abandoned mining sites in West Virginia.  
 
WVDEP had taken over the sites after the mine operators went bankrupt. The state tried to immunize itself from citizen enforcement actions by refusing to obtain federally enforceable discharge permits.
 
At the same time, WVDEP had not required coal operators to post bonds sufficient to cover the cleanup costs, and the coal severance taxes it imposed were not high enough to serve as backup financing in the event of a default on the bonds. Instead, the state set the bonds and taxes artificially low.
 
The agency is now saddled with the long-term problem of reclaiming the sites and treating storm water runoff contaminated with pollutants from the mine. 
 
“The state was running these sites ‘off the books’ to try to escape accountability for necessary water treatment,” said Jim Hecker, Public Justice’s Environmental Enforcement Director and lead counsel in the case.  “Two district courts have now ordered the state to obtain the required discharge permits for 21 bond forfeiture sites.  Once it does, the state will have to comply with the water quality standards it is now violating.”
 
Co-counsel Joe Lovett of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment in Lewisburg, W. Va., said the state will now charge the coal companies “large amounts” to pay for pollution control improvements.
 
“The courts’ rulings will require WVDEP to stop protecting the coal industry from paying the full environmental costs of coal mining,” Lovett said.
 
WVDEP has appealed the Northern District Court’s January decision involving 18 of the mines and has begun processing permit applications for those sites.  It is expected to appeal the Southern District Court ruling as well.
 
Read the Southern District Court Decision (August 24, 2009).

Read the Northern District Court Decision (January 14, 2009).