Pennsylvania’s review and permitting of new longwall coal mining operations is based on incomplete application data and as a result doesn’t protect the state’s water resources and air quality, according to a report released today by the Citizens Coal Council.
The national network of coalfield organizations said the 62-page report fills the role of “canary in the coal mine,” by highlighting a host of chronic problems with the state Department of Environmental Protection’s mining application review process, including outdated procedures and failure to document risks to streams, groundwater, wetlands and structures caused by surface subsidence because of mining.
The report, titled “The Illusion of Environmental Protection” and prepared by Schmidt & Co. Inc., consulting ecologists based in Media, Delaware County, uses as a case study the DEP’s three-year regulatory review of the mining permit application filed by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources for its proposed 9,438-acre Foundation Mine in western Greene County, and notes it would have undermined high-quality streams and wetlands in a low-income area designated by the state as an Environmental Justice Area.
It found the DEP accepted the permit application filed in 2010 even though it was “remarkably deficient in a number of significant ways,” including a “failure to acknowledge the full probable extent of impacts to streams, wetlands and groundwater associated with the proposed coal mine.” Alpha withdrew the application for economic reasons in July 2013, according to Steve Hawkins, a company spokesman.
“The study demonstrates once again the inadequate protection being provided to coalfield citizens,” said Aimee Erickson, Citizens Coal Council executive director.
“This is not unique to the DEP. Unfortunately, it is true in all states where the more destructive longwall mining method is being used.”
The Foundation Mine application was the first submitted under regulations developed to implement the state’s 1994 mining law, Act 54, which the mining industry pushed to accommodate longwall mining, a highly mechanized, full-extraction, deep mining technique used in five active southwestern Pennsylvania mines to remove all of the coal in the 5- to 9-foot-thick Pittsburgh coal seam.
The act allowed, for the first time, the undermining of houses built prior to 1966 as long as mining companies repaired them and replaced affected water supplies, including groundwater, springs and streams.
Longwall mines remove coal in panels that are 1,600 feet wide and up to 16,000 feet long. As the coal is removed, the rock and soil overburden above collapses into the void, causing surface subsidence that can be immediate and significant, affecting stream and spring flows and groundwater supplies.
Eric Shirk, a DEP spokesman, said Monday that although he couldn‘t comment on a report that hadn’t been released and that he hadn‘t seen, mining companies are “required to conduct a comprehensive characterization of ground and surface water resources above and near their proposed mining operations,” including information on groundwater and surface water quality and quantity, documenting existing water uses and controls of water drainage within the permit area.
“The mine operator has to predict any probable hydrologic consequences related to underground mining,” Mr. Shirk said. “They must also develop and submit a groundwater and surface water monitoring plan that relates to the baseline information collected during the study of the potential mine site.”
But the report concluded that the failure of the Foundation Mine application to completely and accurately identify risks to high-quality water resources and evaluate potential impacts resulted in large part from deficiencies in the state‘s application forms and the DEP review process, which did not meet technical and legal minimum requirements.
“People have an expectation that the DEP is administering — and enforcing — the laws written and intended,” said Stephen Kunz, the report’s lead author. “The DEP‘s Mining Bureau obviously is failing in that duty.”
Although coal mining in Pennsylvania dates to the late 1700s, longwall mining and its “planned subsidence” was first used in the Gateway Mine near Clarksville in Greene County beginning in 1970.
Since then, 28 deep mines have used longwall mining methods in the state.
Pennsylvania’s coal production ranks fourth among all states.
Don Hopey: email@example.com or 412-263-1983.