I have recently been writing a lot about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's "attack" on mountaintop removal — and more specifically, valley filling. The agency seems to have cracked down on those proposed mining operations which pose an irreversible threat to water quality in West Virginia. The EPA held a noteworthy public debate on the possible revocation of Arch Coal Inc.'s permit for Spruce No. 1 mine in Logan County. If allowed to open, this surface mine would bury around seven miles of streams through its proposed valley filling techniques, and become the largest mountaintop removal site in West Virginia history.
Though I have yet to hear final word on whether Spruce Mine will be allowed to open, last week the EPA signed a permit for a different 760-acre surface mine to set up in Logan County, W. Va. The Pine Creek Surface Mine will be run by Arch Coal Inc.'s subsidiary, Coal-Mac, in Southwest Omar. Though the mine will not be as large as the proposed Spruce Mine, it is still a significant new site that will change the topography of Logan County forever.
Honestly, hearing of the successful opening of any new mountaintop removal operation pains me. I don't think a lot of people around me realize the speed at which these mining operations are opening up and beginning their extractions. One thing that is different about the Pine Creek permit, however, is that it was only signed by the EPA after Coal-Mac made several key changes designed to lessen the environmental impact of its project. It seems that the company has actually considered alternatives to valley fill construction, which, as I have previously discussed, leads to high levels of total dissolved solids (TDS), and other severe water quality issues.
The company agreed to avoid impacts to 22 percent of the stream resources which would have originally been affected. In order to do this, they will haul 4.1 million tons of waste rock and dirt to an adjacent mine site, rather than conveniently dumping the excess into the valleys and streams surrounding the Omar site. Also, Coal-Mac's original plan required three valley fills to be active within the first year of operation. In order to meet EPA standards, the company altered its plan so that the third valley fill would not be used until approximately three years from the date in which mining begins. Ideally, the EPA wants Coal-Mac to build and use one valley fill at a time in order to ensure that their runoff complies with federal water quality guidelines. Coal-Mac has yet to agree to this additional requirement.
The EPA has received a lot of criticism from environmental groups over its decision to permit Coal-Mac's operation. Many believe that the government agency is not practicing what it preaches, and that EPA administrator Lisa Jackson's words are not being reflected in the agency's actions. Though I am happy to hear that coal corporations are being held to some type of environmental standards, I fear greatly for the future of Logan County. This area is already home to many of our state's dilapidated mountains and may soon hold one of the worst cases of surface mining we will ever see. I really question exactly how stringent the EPA will be with the Pine Creek Surface Mine in regards to its water contimation.