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EPA keeps eye on Legislature

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

CHARLESTON -- The fact various players cannot agree on what to call a piece of water-quality legislation is indicative of the deep division among them.

Environmental concerns call the pending proposal to implement a state anti-degradation policy for rivers the Dirty Water Bill.

A broad coalition of industrial, agricultural, civic and business interests calls it the Clean Water/Good Jobs Bill.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants the feuding factions to call it quits.

"We would like to see both sides talking together," said Bob Koroncai, chief of Virginia/West Virginia water quality for the EPA.

The agency has more than good vibes in mind, however. As in the late-1990s battle involving mountaintop removal mining and resulting water issues, West Virginia is coming under federal scrutiny.

"We do expect this issue to be resolved in this legislative session," Koroncai said.

If not, he said the EPA could come in and implement the state's policy itself.

"This anti-degradation policy has been part of the state water-quality policy for close to 20 years -- without the implementation procedures," Koroncai said.

"How much more patience should you have?"

The coalition view

At the heart of the debate is how rivers are classified. Like other states, West Virginia divides rivers into tier classifications ranging from 1 at the lower end to a high-mark of 3 in terms of fishability and swimmability, Koroncai said.

The EPA does not mandate how to rate the streams, just that they must be rated.

The Anti-Degradation Coalition of 15 groups united under a pro-development credo claims the pending plan is needed to allow economic growth along rivers.

Coalition literature states an original plan submitted by the state Environmental Quality Board would have classified 95 percent of West Virginia's rivers at the 2.5 or 3 level.

"It hurts everybody; look at this coalition," said Karen Price, president of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association and a coalition spokeswoman. She noted the coalition includes such interests as contractors, municipal water treatment plants, farmers, coal companies and tourism promoters.

Robert Orndorff, a Clarksburg-based spokesperson for Dominion's state operations, said the original plan hit hard.

"From the oil and gas perspective, it would have stopped development," Orndorff said. "When you drill a well ... it's not 100 percent restored, what (water) goes into the rivers."

Dominion also has coal-fired electric generators, he added. At the Mount Storm plant in Grant County, the company puts clean-but-warm water it has used for cooling into the Stony River. He is afraid that practice would not be allowed under the original plan.

Ronald Hamric, manager of environmental services for Anker Energy Corp. in Morgantown, said he is afraid the first plan would have made West Virginia less competitive for new mines than surrounding states.

He said that plan could have been interpreted as protecting all rivers from additional pollution, even if the overall pollution was below the standard listed for a specific tier. He is also concerned the plan would not have allowed chemical treatment of pollutants in mine water as a clean-up option prior to discharging into a river.

The environmental side

Bryan Moore -- a Bridgeport resident who is chair of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition and vice-chair of the state chapter of Trout Unlimited -- believes the reworked bill lowers the standards for many rivers and would reverse successful cleanups such as that of the Ohio River. He said the bill would lead to more rivers being endangered and then targeted for cleanup through Total Maximum Daily Load pollution regulations.

"If anti-degradation is used properly, it tells you ahead of time when trouble is coming," he said of avoiding endangerment.

Moore wants to see environmentalists involved in the discussion as the bill goes through committee. He would especially like to see the state divisions of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources providing input.

Both Moore and EPA's Koroncai take issue with the Anti-Degradation Coalition's claim that 95 percent of rivers would be in upper tiers.

"When I look at the ... categories, in my opinion, there is no way that it's 95 percent of the state," Koroncai said.

Moore believes several regional rivers -- such as the Ohio, the Monongahela, the West Fork and Shavers Fork -- fall below the 2.5 category the Anti-Degradation Coalition is concerned about, although some of their tributary streams may be of higher quality.

Koroncai said the lack of a physical list of rivers by tier is a problem for both sides.

"The lists are out there somewhere," he said of individual categories, such as the 2.5-level trout producing streams that are drawing so much attention. "Nobody has assembled them yet."

Moore noted his groups have a last-resort option to push their way into the discussion -- the threatened lawsuit that could spark EPA intervention.

"It's one of the few sticks we have."

What's ahead?

Sen. Michael Ross, D-Randolph, co-chair of a joint rules committee that developed the bill in question, said he is well aware of the conflict.

"This is something to work from, yet there are a lot of supporters for what is out there now," Ross said.

"Hopefully, we can come up with a set of rules and regulations that does please the EPA," noting he wants the state to retain control of the process.

Koroncai said that agency has not made a decision what it will do if the Legislature passes a plan it considers inadequate.

Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1403 or by e-mail at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com.

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