Coal mining backers line up to oppose federal proposal
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More than 300 people, most pro-coal mining, turned out in Pittsburgh last night to strongly oppose a federal proposal that would end a decades-old streamlined permitting process that's been used to facilitate mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
About 40 people spoke at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers public hearing at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown, one of six hearings held throughout the Appalachian coal fields this week on National Permit 21, which since 1982 has allowed surface mining operations to dump dredge or fill materials into creeks and streams without undergoing individual review.
Although the permit has been little used in Pennsylvania -- only 44 times since 2000 -- George Ellis, president of the Pennsylvania Coal Association, said he doesn't want to see it changed and is concerned it's the "initial assault on surface mining" by the Obama administration.
"Certainly we have seen no patterns of abuse by surface operators in Pennsylvania, where our operators have used it for small scale stream disruptions with minor impacts," Mr. Ellis said. "Our footprint on this is minimal, and we want it to continue."
But Phil Coleman, chair of the Sierra Club's Mining Committee, said valley fills in Pennsylvania that dump waste from longwall deep mines and mountaintop removal in other states have devastated communities and the environment.
"Using more stringent individual permits and allowing increased public comment and community input on mountaintop removal operations is a step in the right direction," Mr. Coleman said.
He said the EPA has determined that the mountaintop removal and other surface coal mining activities authorized by the national permit are causing significant, cumulative degradation of ecologically significant headwater streams and forests throughout Appalachia.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that mountaintop removal mining -- where the tops of mountains covering shallow coal seams are blasted off and pushed into adjacent stream valleys -- buried 724 miles of streams in West Virginia and degraded 1,200 miles more between 1985 and 2001. In Pennsylvania, valley fills and their related operations have resulted in the loss of 67 miles of streams.
But the environmental effects of mountaintop mining were a secondary consideration to most of the audience, about one-third of which was wearing green T-shirts bearing the block lettered message "COAL = JOB + ENERGY" on the back.
Changing or eliminating the national permit will create "uncertainty" in the coalfields, said Larry Emerson, of Pennsylvania Services Corp. of Waynesburg, which operates several surface and deep mines in the state and employs 6,200.
"Mining jobs may be lost and more may be in jeopardy," he said.
Charles Wolf, an environmental consultant with John T. Boyd Co., an international mining firm and former permitting manager with the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, said changes to the national permit process are unnecessary and will cause costly mining delays because the Army Corps is not equipped to handle review of individual mining permits.
The modification of the nationwide permit in the six-state Appalachian region was mandated by a June memorandum signed by the Corps, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Public comments were solicited on two proposed changes: to modify the national permit to prohibit its use to authorized dumping of rock and soil into surface waters or suspend its use and require individual permit reviews.
Col. Mike Crall, commander of the Army Corps Pittsburgh District, said suspension of the national permit would have a small impact on mining in Pennsylvania.
"The national permit is a tool to evaluate surface mining impacts and other tools can be used that provide greater analysis to evaluate the social and environmental impacts," Col. Crall said.
The Corps' hearing in Pittsburgh was one of three last night. The others were in Cambridge, Ohio, and Big Stone Gap, Va.
On Tuesday, more than 4,800 people turned out in Pikesville, Ky., Knoxville, Tenn., and Charleston, W.Va., the vast majority of them supporting coal mining and the existing fast-track permitting process. At the hearings in Charleston and Pikesville, speakers raising environmental concerns were shouted down or prevented from speaking by the often loud and sometimes rowdy pro-mining audiences.
Most mountaintop removal mining occurs in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, where operations produce 130 million tons of coal a year and employ about 14,000.
Pennsylvania, the nation's fourth biggest mining state, produces about 65 million tons of coal a year, just 12 million tons from 300 mostly small surface mining operations.
A little more than half the electricity produced in Pennsylvania comes from burning coal, but the pollution emissions from the state's coal plants are significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.
First Published October 16, 2009 12:00 am