There were two water quality bills in the 2017 Legislature which the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy opposed. This led to weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth, etc., some of which was expressed in the May issue of The Highlands Voice. When the dust cleared, however, lawmakers discovered that when they passed the second bill (removing a restriction on the coal industry) they had accidentally removed controversial language that could increase the amount of toxic chemicals discharged into West Virginia’s rivers and streams,
The first piece of legislation, House Bill 2506, gave the West Virginia Manufacturers Association and other industry groups a long-sought victory with language to move the state Department of Environmental Protection to the use of an average stream flow called “harmonic mean” when setting water pollution permit limits. For years, the DEP has used a more protective low-flow stream figure in calculating those limits.
Under the bill, the state’s water quality standards — the legal limit for in-stream contamination — won’t change. But because the average flow is always higher than the low-flow measure, the change allows the agency to approve increases in the discharges allowed by specific industrial facilities.
The second bill (labeled as SB687 but known as “the coal bill”) changed the rules for the coal industry. It eliminated the requirement that water leaving a mine not cause “biological impairment” of receiving streams (regulationspeak for not kill what lives in the stream).
For more information on both of these bills, see the April issue of The Highlands Voice.
The problem (if we can call it that, depending upon perspective) arose because both bills changed the same section of state code. SB 687 re-enacted the same section of state code that included the harmonic mean flow changes that were made by HB 2506, replacing the changes with the language that was in the law prior to this legislative session. This nullified the changes made by HB 2506.
Since the Regular Session of the Legislature ended the Legislature has been in Special Session off and on. Mostly they were there to work on the budget but have worked on a few other things. There has been talk of adding this issue to the agenda but so far nothing has come of that.
Note: Much of the material for this story first appeared in The Charleston Gazette.