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EPA says King Coal Highway mine ignored less damaging options

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal regulators have concluded that promoters of the proposed King Coal Highway and an associated mountaintop removal mine have failed to examine construction and mining options that could greatly reduce environmental damage from the project.

In a letter sent Friday and made public Monday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said that a study of the highway-mine plan did not fully consider alternatives, including one from a mining engineer EPA hired to draw up less-harmful options.

EPA Regional Administrator Shawn Garvin noted in the letter that CONSOL Energy's proposed Buffalo Mountain Surface Mine "represents one of the largest surface coal mines ever proposed in Appalachia." The operation would create a dozen valley fills, bury more than seven miles of streams and temporarily impact more than three more miles of streams.

Garvin said, though, that the latest project study "does not evaluate any project alternatives that may be available to avoid and minimize these impacts" or examine "alternatives that may provide the basis for a project that meets the identified goals and objectives in a cost-effective and technically feasible manner."

EPA rated the study as "EU-3," or "Environmentally Unsatisfactory -- Inadequate Information."

"Our experience in Appalachia demonstrates that it is possible to improve mine design to better protect water quality and the environment, reduce costs, and maximize coal recovery," Garvin said in EPA's letter. "We are confident that a more thorough and comprehensive analysis would identify reasonable opportunities to achieve the stated project purposes with fewer environmental impacts."

CONSOL spokeswoman Lynn Seay said that the company "is confident that the comments received as part of this process can be addressed without requiring a complete revision of the proposed mining plan." She said that CONSOL "will work collaboratively with the agencies involved to continue to move the project forward."

EPA officials have long expressed major concerns about the Buffalo Mountain proposal, submitting a letter objecting to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers "dredge-and-fill" permit for the operation on the day President Obama was inaugurated.

CONSOL wants to mine 16 million tons of coal at the site over a 14-year period. Part of its post-mining land use plan involves construction of a portion of the King Coal Highway on mined-out areas. Local officials also say the mining would provide large areas of flattened land that could be used for economic development.

Developers had hoped that by including the 2,300-acre mining permit in the road proposal they would actually reduce environmental impacts by combining the project footprints. The proposal would also save taxpayers about $110 million.

EPA officials hired a mining engineer to examine the project and proposed changes that the agency said would involve fewer valley fills and lesser stream impacts.

But with a cursory review, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Highway Administration -- which conduced the most recent environmental study of the project -- concluded the EPA proposal wasn't practical, wouldn't fit in with the area's land use plans, and did not comply with some state mine reclamation rules.

In its new letter, EPA expressed concern that the corps and the highway administration declined to even include the EPA proposal among the alternatives that were more fully examined in the latest study.

EPA said that its proposal could have served "as a useful point of reference as you assess alternatives to the applicant's proposed mine plan."

"We are concerned that this limited analysis does not recognize that there are likely additional practicable alternatives that can meet the stated project purpose while more effectively avoiding and minimizing anticipated significant adverse environmental impacts," the EPA said. "We expect that a broader look at feasible alternatives may find that such development is possible while reducing anticipated impacts to the environment and human health."

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


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