A permit application for a new surface mine in Raleigh County has renewed concerns about environmental impacts from mining in the area.
Republic Energy LLC has proposed a metallurgical surface mine that would disturb 1,085 acres three miles south of Clear Creek. The subsidiary of Tennessee-based Alpha Metallurgical Resources, which changed its name from Contura Energy last month, intends to move 245 million cubic yards of earth to mine 11.2 million tons of coal over eight years.
Members of the state Department of Environmental Protection Division of Mining and Reclamation discussed details of and took comments about Republic Energy’s mine application during a permit hearing conducted online Thursday. The department must make a decision on the permit application within 30 days of the hearing.
Opponents of mountaintop removal mining and blasting in other mining techniques, like Naoma-based nonprofit Coal River Mountain Watch, want the department to deny the application due to the company’s history of blasting, but the group’s executive director said he doesn’t have his hopes up.
“We have in some communities, in some neighborhoods, the explosive equivalent of 20 Tomahawk missiles or the mother of all bombs going off every day,” Vernon Haltom told department officials during the hearing. “When that dust drifts down across the homes, we’re gaslighted. We’re told that information cannot be used. We’re told not to worry about it because it dissipates.”
Dust from mountaintop removal mining has been known to cause cancer.
Drone videos recorded by Coal River Mountain Watch in November appear to show moving dust clouds that the group says were produced by blasts from Republic Energy’s Middle Ridge surface mining operation.
Haltom submitted a complaint to the Department of Environmental Protection Division of Mining and Reclamation that month saying a blast shook ground between Workman Creek and McDowell Branch, and that dust from the blast traveled more than two miles.
But a DEP inspector who investigated Haltom’s complaint could not validate the dust cloud in the video was caused by blasting at the Middle Ridge site, or that the dust cloud traveled that distance.
The DEP’s report on Haltom’s complaint says smoke bombs, flags and/or a weather station will be used to determine wind direction to Workman Creek and McDowell Branch prior to blasting in an effort to maintain compliance for “fugitive dust control” in the community.
“We’ll provide you the smoking gun … and yet you still don’t do anything about it,” Haltom told Division of Mining and Reclamation personnel. “If you cannot do anything about it or you won’t do anything about it, you cannot issue this permit.”
Haltom said inspection records in recent years had not showed inspectors at Middle Ridge during the time of day when blasting usually occurs, which he said was typically in the late afternoon. Gregory Demyan, senior engineer for the Division of Mining and Reclamation and team leader on Republic Energy’s pending surface mine application, said he is onsite more than his inspection reports indicate.
“I will be down there to witness random times,” Demyan said. “They shoot sometimes at noon, sometimes in the evening. I’ve been there both times and haven’t really noticed much dust leaving like that video showed.”
In a statement, Alpha Metallurgical Resources said it operates “with a commitment to the protection of the environment and the surrounding communities” at Republic Energy and all its properties.
“Should our permit application be approved, we look forward to expanding our operations, continuing to offer well-paying jobs, and operating safely and responsibly for years to come,” the company said.
If the permit is approved, mining would start on the mountain between the Workman Creek and Stover Fork drainages of Clear Fork and continue south to the Wingrove Branch drainage of Sandlick Creek, according to Demyan. Republic Energy’s plan proposes a combination of area mining, multi-seam contour mining, high-wall mining and auger mining into steep slopes.
Mining and restoration would be completed in about eight years.
The Division of Mining and Reclamation has approved 56 of the 69 surface mine applications it has received from the beginning of 2018 to Saturday, according to Terry Fletcher, the DEP’s acting communications director.
“The permit, you’ve already made up your mind to give it to them,” mountaintop removal mining opponent Bo Webb told DEP staff. “You’re not going to consider human health.”
A West Virginia University study published in 2011 found significantly higher prevalence rates of birth defects in mountaintop mining areas compared to other mining areas and non-mining areas after examining more than 1.8 million birth records in West Virginia and surrounding states in central Appalachia. The study found that birth defects were 42% higher in mountaintop mining areas from 2000 to 2003.
“You don’t care that having birth defect rates 42% higher than other areas is a problem?” Haltom asked.
DEP officials declined to say who the bond provider backing Republic Energy’s permit would be during the meeting.
West Virginia and other states throughout Appalachia face daunting coal reclamation bonding issues.
Enacted in 1977, the federal Surface Coal Mining and Reclamation Act allows states to regulate their own surface coal mining and reclamation operations while the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement maintains some oversight to keep state programs in compliance. The law requires coal-mining permit applicants to post a reclamation bond to ensure that regulatory authorities have enough funding to reclaim the site.
But actual reclamation costs may exceed bond amounts. A January report from the Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition says the cost of reclaiming at least 490,000 acres of mined land in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia and Tennessee may amount to $6 billion, far more than the $2.5 billion the report says those states have in available bonds based on a review of state and federal data.
“Mountaintop removal mining is devastating to the ecosystem and surrounding community,” said West Virginia Rivers Coalition staff scientist Autumn Crowe, who attended the virtual hearing. “These areas never fully recover. Unfortunately, the state and taxpayers stand to get stuck with the cleanup costs because the bonding is insufficient, and more and more coal companies are filing for bankruptcy.”