Coal operators await state approval to bury more than 50 miles of West Virginia streams with strip mine waste, according to new data from the state Division of Environmental Protection. Twenty-one pending mountaintop removal coal mine permits propose at least 90 new valley fills in 11 counties, according to DEP permit records reviewed this week. Those fills would bury dozens of streams with millions of tons of rock and earth blasted from mountaintops to uncover valuable coal seams. At least 50.9 miles of streams would be buried if those 21 permits for large surface mines are approved by the DEP Office of Mining and Reclamation. The only thing standing in the way of the permits' approval is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Long-term environmental effects No one knows what the long-term environmental effects on downstream waterways, surrounding forests or wildlife would be. EPA has temporarily blocked the state from issuing water pollution permits for three mountaintop removal permits. Agency officials say they may halt any other mountaintop removal permits as well. Under federal mining and environmental laws, permits are not supposed to be issued if regulators don't understand the full scope of environmental effects the mining could cause. If regulators don't know the impacts, the theory goes, they can't force coal companies to take steps to avoid or limit them. Old-time strip mining chipped coal off the sides of hills. Mountaintop removal mining blasts off hilltops to reveal coal veins. Leftover rock and earth are dumped in nearby valleys and streams in waste piles called valley fills. A report issued in September by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that 470 miles of West Virginia streams have been buried or proposed to be buried by valley fills since 1986. Both the 470-mile figure for approved permits and the 50-mile figure for pending permit applications probably underestimate the amount of streams destroyed by valley fills. In coming up with its figure, the Fish and Wildlife Service counted valley fills only for permits issued from the DEP Logan regional office. That office covers the coal-producing counties of Logan, Lincoln, Boone, Wayne and Mingo. Valley fills are also burying streams in other DEP regions, especially the Oak Hill region, which includes part of the Kanawha River watershed. The 50-mile figure for pending permit applications does not include valley fills for several large, proposed mining operations.
No running count
Until recently, DEP didn't keep a running count of valley fill numbers or sizes.
Data on valley fill lengths, released to The Charleston Gazette on Thursday, did not include a 1,400-acre permit proposed by Elk Run Coal Co. or a 1,200-acre permit proposed by Battle Ridge Companies.
DEP also complicates the issue by calling some mines "area mines" and others "mountaintop removal mines." The environmental impacts of area mining and mountaintop removal are largely the same.
Stripping nearly 19,000 acres
According to DEP computer records, there are 25 mountaintop removal or area mining permits currently pending before the agency. In all, those 25 permits would authorize the stripping of nearly 19,000 acres of hills and hollows.
EPA has issued formal objections to three mountaintop removal permits. State DEP Director Michael Miano says the objections are "bureaucratic baloney" and wants the permits issued right away.
Today, EPA officials will hold a public hearing from noon to 5 p.m. at Southern West Virginia Community College in Logan. They will hear public comments on the agency's objection to two mountaintop removal permits.
One of those two permit applications, filed by an Arch Coal Inc. subsidiary, covers 3,113 acres and is the largest strip mine permit in state history. The other, filed by an arm of A.T. Massey Coal Co., covers 1,615 acres. Together, the operations would bury roughly a dozen miles of streams.
Among the other large permit applications on file with DEP:
Massey subsidiary Alex Energy Inc. wants a permit to mine 1,805 acres in Nicholas County. The proposal calls for eight valley fills that would bury more than 4 miles of streams. EPA has also halted that permit, but it is not a subject of today's hearing.
Arch Coal subsidiary Mingo Logan Coal Co. wants a permit to mine 790 acres on the Left Fork of Island Creek in Logan County. The permit application proposes four valley fills that would bury 4.2 miles of streams.
Road Fork Development wants a permit to strip 1,346 acres on the Middle Fork of Island Creek in Logan County. That mine would include five valley fills, burying 2.8 miles of streams.
Vandalia Resources wants to mine on a 350-acre permit on Bullpen Fork and a 470-acre permit on Sycamore Run in Clay County. Together, the mines would include four valley fills and bury 2 miles of streams.
Water quality standards violated?
In objecting to the mining permits, EPA Region III Administrator Michael McCabe said his agency doesn't have enough information to be sure the proposed operations won't violate state and federal water quality standards.
EPA has also gone on record as saying that giant valley fills violate federal and state rules that prohibit existing water quality from being degraded.
A West Virginia University Law Review article published this week agrees with the EPA position.
The article, written by WVU law student Jeffrey W. Lilly, concludes that valley fills violate the anti-degradation policy of West Virginia's water quality standards and the Clean Water Act.
"Valley fills result in significant degradation because there are adverse effects upon aquatic ecosystem diversity, productivity and stability," Lilly wrote.
"For example, valley fills create a flattened and virtually treeless topography," he wrote.
"As a result, the tourist industry will suffer greatly because many tourists travel West Virginia to see the mountains, valleys, streams and colorful trees."
In his article, published in The National Coal Issue of the WVU Law Review, Lilly also argues that coal companies do not take advantage of other ways to dispose of mining wastes. Coal operators could dump the waste in abandoned mines or put it back on top of mined-out hills.
"Although there may not be any cheaper alternatives than valley fill disposal, there are several available and practicable alternatives," he wrote. "The mining industry simply disregards these alternatives as impracticable because they reduce the margin of profit the industry enjoys from the lower costs of valley fill disposal."
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.