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Board lifts stay on Arch coal permit

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The state Environmental Quality Board has lifted a stay on an Arch Coal mountaintop removal permit in Monongalia County. But the mining still can't move forward, and board members said the Sierra Club is likely to eventually win the case.

Board members are taking another look at the permit for Arch's New Hill West Mine following a ruling last month by Kanawha Circuit Judge James Stucky to send the case back to the board.

The case focuses on efforts by environmental groups to force the state Department of Environmental Protection to apply to state permits new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency water quality guidance on conductivity pollution.

Scientists use electrical conductivity as a key indicator of stream health and the presence of other important pollutants such as chlorides, sulfides and dissolved solids. Recent research has found increased conductivity levels downstream from mining operations in Appalachia, and scientists have linked impaired aquatic life to those increased conductivity levels.

Board members had previously ruled that the DEP needed to include conductivity limits in the New Hill West permit, but Stucky sent the case back, telling the board to provide "written supplemental findings detailing a reasoned and articulate decision."

Over the last month, board members have been wrestling with how to respond to the judge's decision, and Arch Coal lawyers have sought to have stay on permit changes previously approved by DEP eliminated.

In a ruling released this week, board members lifted their stay, citing Arch subsidiary Patriot Mining's arguments that the company is losing money by not being able to mine coal at the site. Board members also cited evidence from a previous hearing that they said indicated any short-term pollution damage from mining activity would be minimal, given poor conditions that already exist in area streams.

But the board also said that aquatic life at the site is already suffering "and could suffer greater harm if levels of pollution are increased as a result of new mining.

"However, the testimony of experts at the evidentiary hearing also suggested that the impact would not be immediate or great," the board said. "Long-term impacts may be considerably larger but immediate harm was not proven to the board."

Board members noted that the company still needs to receive a new permit with certain changes from DEP, and that "all of this may be too great a risk for the company to move ahead with production at this time."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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