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Clean water controversy still boils

by Franny White

STAFF WRITER

Next time you take a sip of water, think of where it came from. Our drinking water is derived from the state's streams, rivers and watersheds. Unfortunately, not all of these sources are pristine.

Toxic industrial chemicals, animal and human waste, and sediment and mine drainage have been seeping into West Virginia waters for years.

No one wants to drink polluted water. So you'd think everyone would want to work together to clean our water. But in West Virginia, that's far from reality.

Farmers, industry, environmentalists and the Environmental Protection Agency have been at each other's throats for more than five years now. Each have their own opinions and complaints about something called TMDLs, or total maximum daily loads.

Federal mandate

Think back to 1972. Americans were focusing on the nation's polluted environment. It was then that Congress passed the Clean Water Act, which aimed to clean the nation's water supply. With the new congressional mandate in hand, the EPA began a massive effort to revamp the nation's wastewater treatment systems by building more effective treatment plants across the United States.

But the EPA didn't quite follow through all the way. The Clean Water Act's Section 303(d) requires a prioritized list of the nation's contaminated waters -- waters needing a plan of action to clean them. Those de-pollution plans are TMDLs. The Clean Water Act says states must first try to conduct TMDLs, and if they can't because of financial or other reasons, the EPA should step in.

In the mid-1980s, environmental groups noticed TMDLs weren't being produced and began what became a rush of nearly 40 lawsuits against the EPA, accusing the agency of not fully complying with the Clean Water Act.

A 1995 lawsuit by the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, an environmental group centered in West Virginia, brought the TMDL issue home. In 1997, the coalition settled with the EPA, setting a 10-year schedule to establish TMDLs for West Virginia's waterways.

Let the bickering begin.

Farmers say TMDL regulations are loaded with inaccuracies. Miners say the regulations are too stringent. Some environmentalists say the EPA isn't doing enough. And while the EPA admits its past wrongdoings, it says it's doing the best it can with limited resources.

Down on the farm

Meet Harrison County farmer Pete Matheny. The 64-year-old was born on his family's farm where Rosebud Plaza now stands in Clarksburg. Farming and his 50 head of cattle are part of his identity.

"We're trying to keep the American way of life and keep food on the table," Matheny said.

But Matheny said EPA regulations like TMDLs are making it difficult to continue that way of life. EPA officials have said his farm and cattle bring unwanted sediment and fecal matter to the river that runs along his property.

Farming often does not bring in the big bucks. So when the EPA says farmers with a certain number of animals on a certain plot of land have to buy permits to use the water source next to them in an effort to prevent water pollution, Matheny said things get difficult.

"We'd like to be able to think the farm will sustain itself," Matheny said. "But if you get too much red tape and it gets too costly, you just get disgusted and you quit."

Matheny hasn't quit yet. But he said he can see where some of his fellow farmers may do just that.

That's why Steve Hannah, executive secretary of the West Virginia Farm Bureau, is fighting TMDLs so hard. TMDLs are pushing farmers to the line, the line where they consider ending their way of life as the nation's source for food. And according to Hannah, TMDLs are often unnecessary and the way EPA carries them out is unprofessional.

"In our opinion, to put it bluntly, they (the EPA) don't know what they're doing," Hannah said on the farm bureau's behalf.

Hannah claimed the data behind the EPA's regulations -- water samples collected across the state to determine what pollutants are where -- aren't reliable. The EPA uses a computer to enter all the data it has received and creates a model for TMDLs. But Hannah said the model is incomplete.

"Using a computer model, they take all the information they have ... and make assumptions for the rest," Hannah said.

Many farmers have declared the EPA's studies and the TMDL plans that they are dependent on "unscientific."

But the EPA says the criticism is unmerited.

"We don't assume anything," said Bob Runowski, one of eight regional EPA scientists who work on TMDLs. "That's just bad science."

Instead, Runowski said EPA "fills in the gaps" of missing data by either collecting more or using another source that has existing data on file.

Still, many are pushing for scientifically reliable data and trustworthy TMDLs. There are two bills in Congress right now that would require the EPA to contract with the National Academy of Sciences to study the scientific basis of TMDLs.

The effects of mining

Acid mine drainage, created when water and air mix with any unmined coal and produce a seeping toxic substance, is perhaps the worst polluter of West Virginia water. So naturally, miners have an opinion on TMDLs.

Ben Greene, president of the West Virginia Mining and Reclamation Association, said the regulations are too strict and don't give room for the mining industry's clean-up efforts. Greene said the best way to stop acid mine drainage is to go into old mines and dig out the remaining 40-50 percent of coal that remains in the mountain and replace it with soil fill. But under current TMDL regulations, that process would create additional pollution.

"The model takes into consideration that everything is pristine water and it's not," Greene said. "Any kind of activity that is man-induced creates a change in water quality."

Environmental criticism

Even the environmentalists criticize the EPA's TMDL effort in West Virginia. Lewis Baker, former chairman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, which was the plaintiff in the 1995 lawsuit that pushed the EPA to do TMDLs in the region, is not satisfied with the local TMDL effort.

"They're taking way too long, they're not using all the available data and they're coming up with faulty conclusions," Baker said.

Baker said West Virginia has received little TMDL support from the local EPA, Region 3, which is based in Philadelphia.

"The southwest end of West Virginia is the farthest from headquarters," Baker said. "It's like we're in Siberia."

But some environmentalists do have hope. The West Virginia Rivers Coalition, which works toward the enforcement and implementation of the Clean Water Act in West Virginia, is one such organization.

"We are partially satisfied," said member Pamela Moe-Merritt. "But there's room for a lot of improvement."

The rivers coalition has taken an active role in the TMDL process, communicating with the EPA on current regulations and suggesting changes.

Moe-Merritt said much of the bickering between industries affected by TMDL regulations has prevented the water quality plans from having a full impact.

"There's an argument for the search for perfect proof and that's never going to happen," Moe-Merritt said. "We need to see those plans put into action."

Better communication

Runowski, an EPA scientist, said the EPA's job is not easy.

"It's easy to criticize the EPA," Runowski said. "But you have to understand that we try to have a level playing field (across Region 3's five states and the District of Columbia) and we only have eight people doing this."

Runowski admits the EPA may have contributed to the confusion by not communicating well in the beginning of TMDLs. But now he hopes to correct that mistake. The EPA began by holding three community meetings on TMDLs across the state in May, one in Clarksburg on May 30. And soon the EPA will begin community workshops to further educate the public and to hear their concerns.

"We realize there have been some problems in the past and we're working on those problems," Runowski said. "We hope to overcome a lot of the questions and fears."

And another EPA spokesperson said Friday the agency was expecting to release a "clarification" of its old TMDL regulations, which was made after the agency received comment from 30,000 people, soon after a federal office approved them.

But the EPA's new efforts may be a little too late.

After the EPA refused Baker's conditions for an improved TMDL along the Kanawha and Ohio rivers on Thursday, Baker hinted he may take EPA back to court.

"It's my impression the TMDL process has been a sham," Baker said. "If we don't do anything it could be a century for the river to clean itself. And that's too long."

Staff writer Franny White can be reached at 626-1443.

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