Whenever we’ve had cause (and that is often!), OVEC has tried to highlight the WV Department of Environmental Protection’s failures to protect citizens from hazardous pollution from coal mines and other sources. In fact, in a recent court ruling, a federal judge sided with us blasting the DEP for inadequate cleanup of mining pollution. But what happens when the DEP literally stops working? That has been exactly the case for the online version of DEP over the last two weeks.
For folks like me, who often have to access the DEP’s information, the last two weeks have been a struggle. When we try to use DEP’s online databases, we are greeted with an error message or an ironic image of a sad face. That’s because the DEP’s servers have stopped working and have been down all this time. This makes my job as a community organizer to inform folks about what is happening in their own back yards more difficult.
What this means is we can’t access certain public information such as permit specifications, company violations, permit maps, and so on. We could travel to the DEP office and try to muddle through hundreds of pages of handwritten notes and photocopied permit specs just to try to find basic information. There isn’t even any guarantee that what you’re looking for would even be at the Charleston headquarters; what you seek may be at the Oak Hill office or somewhere else. Simply, ain’t nobody got time for all that!
Meanwhile, coal companies who aren’t affected by DEP’s cyber woes whatsoever continue business as usual. Yet citizens have no way to check their permits to make sure they aren’t, say for example, mining outside their permit boundary, nor can the public access any violations a company may have received in the last two weeks.
The real kicker is this: not only can’t the public access this information currently, but neither can DEP’s own employees. I have been in contact with some of them and they have felt the exact same struggle. So currently, not only is the DEP grossly understaffed, but the staff that is there can’t access the agency’s own information for the public.
Today, I tried to find the current operational height of a coal slurry impoundment for an earlier Hoots and Hollers blog. Since the servers are still down, I emailed DEP. The response was that that information was in the Electronic Submission System, which the staff also cannot access and the person at the Oak Hill office who might have the information is out in the field and wouldn’t be able to respond for at least a day. The Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter Ken Ward Jr tweeted that the DEP will make no comment about what is happening. Companies are basically off the leash right now, because DEP doesn’t have enough staff to be out in the field and citizens who are trying to take up DEP’s slack by watch-dogging companies, are at the moment flying blind.
Conspiracy theorists might find it interesting the servers failed about the time a coal baron became our new Governor and soon appointed an ex-coal exec of Massey Energy to be Secretary of the DEP, who then almost immediately fired the agency’s chief Environmental Advocate and Communications Director. Is it a coincidence, or is there some fodder for theories here? At the moment, you are just going to have to draw your own conclusions.
In the meantime, we keep waiting. It’s unclear how long this will last but why the servers have been down two weeks so far is beyond us. It is just another example of how the government of West Virginia and its agencies, especially the DEP, are failing its citizens. Maybe folks should call Governor Jim Justice’s office at 304-558-2000 or 1-888-438-2731 and let him know that it is unacceptable that this has gone on as long as it has? There is a major accountability issue here to the public from the Governor’s office and DEP.
**UPDATE: The day after this blog was released the DEP online database is back in operation.