Arch Coal officials have not responded to requests for comment. The company issued a prepared statement last week that said, "We remain shocked and dismayed at EPA's continued onslaught with respect to this validly issued permit. Arch will continue to vigorously defend the permit, now in court, along with the right to have a predictable regulatory environment."
Under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers generally reviews and approves permits that allow mining operators to bury streams with millions of tons of waste rock and dirt. Congress gave EPA broad authority to step in and block such waste dumping if it believes the damage is too great or could have been avoided.
Environmental groups have been trying to stop the Spruce Mine since 1998, when it was proposed as a 3,113-acre extension of Arch's Dal-Tex Mine that would have buried more than 10 miles of streams. Then-U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II blocked the permit in 1999, putting more than 300 United Mine Workers out of work. Since then, Arch has transferred the site to its non-union arm, and the Spruce Mine has undergone one of the most detailed environmental studies ever in the coal industry.
In January 2007, the corps issued a permit for a scaled-back version, a 2,300-acre mine that would bury more than seven miles of streams. Since then, the permit has been tied up in court, operating on a limited scale with about two-dozen workers. The operation would have eventually employed about 250 workers and mined more than 40 million tons of coal over about 15 years.
EPA officials have never signed off on the permit, and the Obama administration in late 2009 began to re-examine the operation and consider an unprecedented veto action of a mine that had already been approved by the Corps.
In its report, Morgan Worldwide examined three alternatives to the Spruce Mine operational plan approved by the corps and the state Department of Environmental Protection. All three would have cut the length of streams buried by mining waste by at least a third.
The report rated the alternatives and the company's proposal based on total stream impacts, tons mined per acre of land disturbed, amount of mining waste per ton of coal and tons of coal per amount of stream buried.
Morgan Worldwide recommended an alternative that proposed to dump all of the waste rock and dirt into the Seng Camp area, eliminating proposed valley fills in two other areas, Pigeonroost Hollow and Oldhouse Branch. The recommended alternative would produce 2,300 tons of coal per foot of stream impact, compared to 930 tons of coal per foot of stream impacted under the company's proposal.
Transporting the waste rock and dirt a longer distance to the Seng Camp area of the permit would cost the company an additional $1.5 million per year, Morgan's report found. That amounts to 55 cents per ton of coal, or about 1 percent of projected annual revenues at the operation, according to the report.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.