West Virginia coal industry data shows excessive pollution: green groups

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Several West Virginia coal mines, including some owned by the governor’s family, have released many times the allowable amounts of pollutants into nearby waterways in recent years without being penalized by regulators, according to environmental groups citing state data.

The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Sierra Club and others on Tuesday sent “notice of intent to sue” letters to nine companies operating about 15 coal facilities in the state, including Bluestone Resources, owned by the family of Governor Jim Justice, and coal magnate Robert Murray’s Murray Energy, for what they said were “egregious violations” of federal laws.

The letters cited routine reports that the mines had submitted to state regulators dating back to 2016 showing frequent exceedances of toxic releases into nearby waterways.

Murray’s data from its Harrison County coal mine, for example, showed it has discharged as much as 220 times the allowable 30-day average limit of aluminum into the Ohio and West Fork rivers in September 2018. Bluestone’s Red Fox mine discharged twice as much selenium and 10 times as much aluminum as it is permitted into the Tug Fork River in February 2019 and September 2018, according to the reports cited in the letters, which were reviewed by Reuters.

Reuters verified that the data cited in the letters had been submitted by the companies to state regulators, and were posted in a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency database.

The environmental groups said the companies had violated the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) and that there was no evidence that state or federal authorities had penalized them or sought to bring the facilities back into compliance.

“Federal and state regulators continue to look the other way,” said Peter Morgan, senior attorney for the Sierra Club.

The EPA and West Virginia DEP did not immediately provide comment. Bluestone Resources and Murray Energy did not respond to requests for comment.

The Clean Water Act requires companies to publish routine discharge monitoring reports with regulators. State regulators and the Environmental Protection Agency are normally supposed to review the data and take enforcement actions if “exceedances” are reported. But citizens can also file lawsuits against alleged violators to trigger enforcement.

Regulators and polluters have 60 days to respond after the groups file their notice of intent to sue.

Morgan told Reuters that the exceedance the groups saw in the companies’ discharge reports “shocked” him.

“In the past, we had more faith that things would function the way they should,” Morgan said. “But way more scrutiny from the public is needed now.”

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Dan Grebler