Mining removal permit flawed, engineer testifies
The largest mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history does not include required water system reclamation plans and mine waste disposal calculations, an international mining expert testified Thursday in federal court.
John Morgan, a mining engineer hired by environmentalists, said a revised permit for the Arch Coal Inc. mine was rushed through the approval process before it complied with the law.
"There was a lot of confusion created by the revision," Morgan told Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden II.
Haden held a daylong hearing Thursday on a request by the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and other environmentalists for a preliminary injunction against Arch Coal's Spruce No. 1 Mine.
On Wednesday, Haden halted permits for the operation with a 10-day temporary restraining order. A preliminary injunction, if issued, would extend the permit stay until Haden can hear the full case.
Arch Coal subsidiary Hobet Mining Inc. wants to blast the tops of mountains and fill in streams on a 3,100-acre tract on Pigeonroost Hollow near Blair, Logan County.
The U.S. Justice Department exempted the Pigeonroost mine from a new policy to give mountaintop removal permits more scrutiny. Environmental groups opposed that exemption, and want the permit revoked.
Haden agreed Thursday morning to a request from Hobet Mining that the judge visit one of the company's active mine sites. The judge also agreed to fly over mountaintop removal sites in a helicopter and tentatively scheduled the tour for Tuesday.
Morgan, the mining engineer, told Haden that the new Hobet permit does not comply with mining and water pollution laws.
For one thing, Morgan said, the permit revision does not show how much of the leftover rock and earth will be put back on the hilltops and how much will be dumped in valley fills.
"I don't know where the material is going," Morgan said.
Morgan said a permit revision also eliminates one water discharge point and relocates 11 others, but doesn't explain how this will affect the area's hydrology.
On Thursday afternoon, Larry Alt, the DEP mining permit supervisor in Logan, demonstrated for Haden how he uses his knuckles to estimate whether strip mines will meet the federal "approximate original contour" reclamation standard.
"I use my hand, with this being the mountains and these being the peaks," Alt said, showing the judge his fist. "Everything would be flat and spread out if it's not approximate original contour."
Alt also used a ballpoint pen to show Haden how he draws circles on his knuckles to indicate elevation changes, as they might be shown on a topographic map.
James Weekley, a lifelong Pigeonroost Hollow resident, testified that the Hobet mining operation would ruin his enjoyment of the stream in front of his home and the hills that surround it.
"It would look like where an atomic bomb was dropped," Weekley said.
The preliminary injunction hearing will continue today at 9 a.m.