Spruce Mine could have reduced impacts, report says
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Arch Coal Inc. could have cut the stream damage from its proposed Spruce Mine in half without significantly increasing coal-production costs, according to a previously secret engineering report prepared for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Permanent and temporary stream burial could have been cut from 8.3 miles to about 3.4 miles under one alternative mining plan developed for EPA by engineer John Morgan of the Lexington, Ky.-based firm Morgan Worldwide.
The alternative mining plan would have raised production costs for Arch subsidiary Mingo Logan Coal Co. by 55 cents per ton, about 1 percent of the expected per-ton sales price, according to the report obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
In the 48-page report dated Sept. 23, 2010, Morgan Worldwide outlined a variety of mining plan changes aimed at reducing the proposed Spruce Mine's overall environmental impacts. The highest rated alternative would have involved dumping all of the waste rock and dirt from mining into the Seng Camp watershed, where mining was already underway through a 2007 deal with environmental groups.
"This analysis of the Spruce No. 1 Mine permit demonstrates that an alternative mine design can meet the project objective and is practicable, in so much that it is capable of being done using existing mining technology," said the report, titled "Spruce Mine Process Technical Review."
Morgan's firm has designed mining projects around the world. In West Virginia, the company helped devise some stronger state regulations and has been an expert witness for environmental groups fighting mountaintop removal. More recently, Morgan helped Hobet Mining rework its proposed Hobet 45 permit along the Boone-Lincoln County border to obtain EPA approval of its "dredge and fill" Clean Water Act permit.
St. Louis-based Arch Coal apparently did not adopt the recommended changes for the Spruce Mine, and last week EPA officials revoked the operation's Clean Water Act permit, citing "destructive and unsustainable mining practices" proposed by the company.
EPA officials also cited the company's "failure to adequately evaluate less environmentally damaging alternatives" to the 2,300-acre proposal that ranked as the largest mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history.
"The permittee has presented only limited alterations to the permitted project that it believes would likely result in environmental improvements," EPA said in a 99-page decision document outlining its decision to veto the permit. "EPA has repeatedly stated its belief that there are alternative mine design and construction practices that would further reduce aquatic resource impacts, while allowing the majority of coal present on site to be mined in a cost effective and technically feasible manner."
West Virginia political leaders have harshly criticized EPA for its action against the Spruce Mine, and the EPA decision prompted Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to announce a "rally for coal" Thursday at the Capitol. Supporters of the Spruce Mine have not publicly questioned whether the company could -- or should -- have done more to reduce the project's impacts.
Arch Coal officials have not responded to requests for comment. The company issued a prepared statement last week that said, "We remain shocked and dismayed at EPA's continued onslaught with respect to this validly issued permit. Arch will continue to vigorously defend the permit, now in court, along with the right to have a predictable regulatory environment."
Under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers generally reviews and approves permits that allow mining operators to bury streams with millions of tons of waste rock and dirt. Congress gave EPA broad authority to step in and block such waste dumping if it believes the damage is too great or could have been avoided.
Environmental groups have been trying to stop the Spruce Mine since 1998, when it was proposed as a 3,113-acre extension of Arch's Dal-Tex Mine that would have buried more than 10 miles of streams. Then-U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II blocked the permit in 1999, putting more than 300 United Mine Workers out of work. Since then, Arch has transferred the site to its non-union arm, and the Spruce Mine has undergone one of the most detailed environmental studies ever in the coal industry.
In January 2007, the corps issued a permit for a scaled-back version, a 2,300-acre mine that would bury more than seven miles of streams. Since then, the permit has been tied up in court, operating on a limited scale with about two-dozen workers. The operation would have eventually employed about 250 workers and mined more than 40 million tons of coal over about 15 years.
EPA officials have never signed off on the permit, and the Obama administration in late 2009 began to re-examine the operation and consider an unprecedented veto action of a mine that had already been approved by the Corps.
In its report, Morgan Worldwide examined three alternatives to the Spruce Mine operational plan approved by the corps and the state Department of Environmental Protection. All three would have cut the length of streams buried by mining waste by at least a third.
The report rated the alternatives and the company's proposal based on total stream impacts, tons mined per acre of land disturbed, amount of mining waste per ton of coal and tons of coal per amount of stream buried.
Morgan Worldwide recommended an alternative that proposed to dump all of the waste rock and dirt into the Seng Camp area, eliminating proposed valley fills in two other areas, Pigeonroost Hollow and Oldhouse Branch. The recommended alternative would produce 2,300 tons of coal per foot of stream impact, compared to 930 tons of coal per foot of stream impacted under the company's proposal.
Transporting the waste rock and dirt a longer distance to the Seng Camp area of the permit would cost the company an additional $1.5 million per year, Morgan's report found. That amounts to 55 cents per ton of coal, or about 1 percent of projected annual revenues at the operation, according to the report.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.