Kanawha Forest Coalition prevails in 2-year effort to halt strip mine

CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail file photo
Members of the Kanawha Forest Coalition and other opponents of a strip mine near Kanawha State Forest protest outside the headquarters of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection in June 2015.
Kanawha Forest Coalition courtesy photo
This overhead photo shows the Kanawha Development No. 2 Mine.

A two-year struggle by the Kanawha Forest Coalition to halt a strip mine operating adjacent to Kanawha State Forest has ended in a bittersweet victory for the citizens group, after the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection ordered a permanent end to mining at the Kanawha Development No. 2 Mine.

Under the terms of a DEP consent order signed late last month after a year of negotiations between the coalition and the permit holder, Keystone Industries of Jacksonville, Florida, “no additional mineral removal activities may occur” on the 413-acre surface mine permit. “Activity is exclusively restricted to actions necessary to achieve phased release of the permit,” including rebuilding sediment ditches that are leaking or that contain acidic material, and mapping the locations of containment areas for selenium-bearing or acidic materials, according to the consent order.

Active mining at the KD No. 2 Mine has been suspended since early 2015, and was limited to about 100 acres of the permit area approved in 2014.

“This is a victory for the people of West Virginia and a powerful demonstration of the impact citizens can have when we take a stand, stay persistent and don’t back down,” said Chad Cordell, the coalition’s coordinator. “Many people thought this strip mine was a done deal when the permit was issued over two years ago. However, we doubled down on our determination to protect our streams, health and mountains.”

The cessation order followed the DEP’s filing of 33 notices of violation of state mining and environmental laws and seven cessation orders, most of them initiated on monitoring data submitted to the DEP by coalition members.

Despite the coalition’s efforts, “We now have perpetual pollution, including acid mine drainage, entering tributaries of Davis Creek,” Cordell said, as the result of mining that did take place, most of it in the watershed of Middlelick Fork, a Davis Creek tributary.

“The lessons learned at the KD No. 2 Mine should be a wake-up call to West Virginia residents, regulators and lawmakers that even the best engineering and the closest scrutiny can’t make strip mining safe for our water or health or our communities,” Cordell said.

Surface mine laws prohibit operators from damaging adjacent land and polluting water outside the permit boundaries. The laws also require operators to show how they will avoid toxic discharges from their mines. In the case of the KD No. 2 Mine, its operators stated in its permit documents that degradation of water quality in general, as well as the potential for generating acid or excessive sediment or selenium were not expected to take place in the permit area because of the geology of the site or controls that were to be put in place.

“The legality of strip mining is built on a mountain of false assumptions,” Cordell said. “To really look closely at the conditions on the ground, as we have, and not the fantasy assumptions on paper, means having to accept that mountaintop removal and other types of strip mining simply cannot be done without irreparable harm to our land, water and health. It’s up to us to tear down the coal industry’s mountain of lies as effectively as they’ve torn down the mountains of our homeland.”

Cordell said the coalition’s goal was not only to stop the KD No. 2 Mine, but to also shed light on the practice of strip mining “showing just how damaging it really is. Many other communities are being hurt by strip mining and both the DEP and our state lawmakers need to acknowledge and act on the reality of strip mining’s widespread impacts.”

Permits are pending for more than 20 surface mines, according to the DEP.

Developers of the KD No. 2 Mine scaled back initial plans for the operation, including reducing the total acreage of the mine and removing a proposed valley fill from the site. To prevent sedimentation and to cool aquatic habitat, buffer zones of forest were to be left surrounding headwaters of creeks in the permit area.

“We sincerely commend the DEP for taking steps to address the many issues at the KD No. 2 Mine,” said Cordell, “but these are not isolated problems; they are widespread problems inherent in strip mining.”

The KD No. 2 Mine was located less than 200 yards across Shooting Range Road from Kanawha State Forest, and was close enough to the forest’s shooting range and Lindy, Polecat and Ballard trails that plans had been made to block public access to those sites while blasting was underway.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

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