MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Environmental groups that have spent years suing coal companies over water pollution in West Virginia are now setting their sights on federal regulators, accusing the Environmental Protection Agency of failing to ensure the state adequately enforces the Clean Water Act.
The West Virginia Sierra Club, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition have given the agency 60 days' notice in a 13-page letter demanding it reject as inadequate a list of known polluted streams that state regulators recently submitted.
The state Department of Environmental Protection has not only abdicated its responsibility to protect waterways, the groups argue, but "colluded with polluters" to help them skirt federal law and avoid hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup costs.
The EPA is reviewing West Virginia's list of impaired waters, spokesman David Sternberg said Monday, declining to elaborate. The DEP did not immediately comment.
The Legislature, the environmental groups argue, has also collaborated with the DEP by passing weaker water-quality standards last year. Rather than submit those standards to EPA for consideration, the letter says, the DEP "has defiantly taken the indefensible position that it is not a revision."
"EPA cannot accept WVDEP's representation at face value," the letter says. "EPA has an independent federal duty to determine whether a revision has in fact occurred, and in this case, it has."
EPA has the power to rein in state agencies that abuse their power, the groups argue, and they urged it to intervene forcefully if it wants to avoid a lawsuit.
"Without leadership from the EPA and the Obama administration," said OVEC's Dianne Bady, "West Virginia's public officials will continue to promote the annihilation of major swaths of southern West Virginia, and knowingly allow the sickening of the people they claim to represent."
Allowing the state to continue what it's doing, the groups contend, also tells state regulators and coal companies they can continue to ignore federal law "without consequence."
The lawsuit threat stems from a list of known polluted waterways that the DEP sent the EPA in December.