The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Balancing Act

February 28, 2011

Coal’s history provides lessons for state, industry to use to ensure gas impact is positive

BECKLEY — As the natural gas industry, boosted in large part by Marcellus shale wells, grows in West Virginia, people have been looking to the West Virginia coal industry for lessons from the past.

Randy Huffman, secretary of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, said the DEP is trying to double oil and gas staff to be sure they adequately regulate natural gas. He said the history of coal provides several lessons in the need to protect the environment. 

“I think the biggest lesson is to regulate,” Huffman said. “That is really a lot of what is going into our thought process here. We have the opportunity to get out in front of this industry instead of waiting for something bad to happen.”

Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, agreed that waiting for the crisis to occur before regulating shouldn’t be the plan.

“The biggest mistake that was made was waiting for a crisis to occur before instituting the next round of regulations,” he said. “That was kind of the history — gradually implementing environmental regulations in the coal industry. You would have fish kills, disasters or recurring dead streams.”

Ziemkiewicz said West Virginia is now equipped to properly regulate gas.

“In reality, I think we have a lot of experience now in what we need to do to protect surface waters for aquatic users and municipal drinking water supplies,” Ziemkiewicz said. “I think we can take those lessons and apply them now with regard to the gas industry, rather than waiting for things to go seriously wrong.”

Proceed carefully and ensure that the natural gas industry positively impacts the state, Ziemkiewicz advised.

“The Marcellus industry is potentially very big and very important for the state, economically,” Ziemkiewicz said. “Just like anything in the energy world, if you do it right, it could be an asset to the state. If you don’t, it could be a detriment and a liability.”

Shanda Minney, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, said many of the problems her organization faces are not from modern issues but rather “legacy” issues of the days when coal was lightly, if at all, regulated.

“A lot of the work we have done in the past and currently is from legacy pollution of coal where we didn’t adequately protect from discharges of certain chemicals,” Minney said. “We have a very widespread acid mine drainage problem across the northern part of the state.”

Now, because there was inadequate bonding and permit fees, those legacy issues have left West Virginia without adequate resources to deal with them, Minney said.

“Had they been adequately regulated, we could have done a lot to prevent these legacy issues from occurring in the first place,” Minney said.

She said legislators need to take a hard look at natural gas and make sure it is “done right.” Many of the legislators have acknowledged such an obligation, admitting that when the coal industry first moved in, legislation to benefit West Virginians didn’t necessarily happen.

Tom Jones, Marshall University professor and an environmental scientist, said when regulations are put in place, they are largely followed by the coal industry.

“Most modern mines operate within the law,” Jones said. “Just like hundreds of years ago, manufacturing stopped using children in unsafe manufacturing practices. The same thing has happened; most modern operations recognized this.”

Trusting drillers to be responsible in regard to the environment is out of the question, said Howard Swint, a commercial property broker in Charleston.

“We have abandoned mine lands in this state, we have Superfund sites just down the Kanawha River as testament for having taken industry at their word,” Swint said. “I ask that the committee and our lawmakers do not make the same mistake again. This is a wonderful opportunity; it’s a bridge fuel to the future.”

Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said the coal industry is working to become a cleaner energy fuel.

“We need to get better at mining it, drilling it, using it and protecting everything around it,” Raney said. “We’re pretty good at it. Very good at it. I think the gas industry is learning the same things we have over the years.”

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