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Mining study: Blasts not 'significant'

Federal regulators have determined, in their new study on mountaintop removal, that mine blasting is not a “significant issue” in need of additional restrictions.

The federal Office of Surface Mining and other agencies say citizen complaints about blasting probably will continue.

As strip mines have gotten bigger, the agencies said, so have the explosive blasts used on them. At the same time, federal blasting limits have not been updated for 20 years.

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But, the agencies said, complaints of property damage by blasting seldom are justified.

Coalfield residents, the agencies said, should hire private lawyers and go to court if they feel blasting near their homes is a nuisance.

“No additional actions to control blasting are warranted at this time,” concludes the 5,000-page draft report issued in late May. “As with all nuisances, the affected persons have legal recourse regarding blasting nuisances through civil action.”

The OSM, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Corps of Engineers and the Fish and Wildlife Service spent 4 1/2 years working on the report.

In December 1998, the agencies agreed in a court settlement to conduct a comprehensive study of mountaintop removal. Their goal, they said at the time, was to consider new rules to “minimize the potential for adverse individual and cumulative impacts of mining operations.”

Instead, the Bush administration has proposed a plan to streamline mine permitting. The plan includes no concrete new limits on mountaintop removal.

As part of their study, federal officials abandoned consideration of additional blasting restrictions. They dropped the issue when they narrowed the list of “significant issues” that deserved detailed examination.

In mountaintop removal, coal operators use explosives to blast off entire hilltops and uncover valuable, low-sulfur coal reserves. Leftover rock and dirt is dumped into nearby valleys, burying streams.

Over the past five years, complaints about noise, dust and property damage from blasting have been a consistent concern of citizens at public meetings about mountaintop removal.

In the first national exposť on mountaintop removal, Penny Loeb of U.S. News and World Report focused on the dangers of mine blasting.

“Blasts are made with the same mixture of ammonium nitrate and fertilizer and fuel oil used in the bomb that killed 168 people in Oklahoma City two years ago, but the mining explosions are 10 to 100 times stronger,” Loeb wrote in August 1997.

In November 1998, a task force appointed by Gov. Cecil Underwood called for better policing of mine blasting.

A few months later, during the 1999 session, the Legislature created a new Office of Explosives and Blasting within the Department of Environmental Protection.

In their new report, federal officials praise West Virginia for its “leadership role in passing laws and regulations that highlight the importance of mining companies being good corporate neighbors and addressing citizens’ blasting concerns.”

But in a study released in December 2002, West Virginia’s Legislative Auditor found that the DEP blasting office wasn’t doing its job.

For example, the audit report said, the office had not yet taken over policing of mine-related blasting from the DEP’s Division of Mining and Reclamation. The office had not yet trained anyone to perform pre-blast surveys or set up an in-house database to track blasting complaints.

More importantly, the office reported a backlog of complaints that had not been inspected, let alone resolved. At the time of the audit, 39 of 202 complaints filed with the blasting office had not yet been assigned to an inspector. Fifty-four of the 202 claims were resolved. But of the 148 open claims, only five had been sent to a claims administrator for resolution, the audit found. More than one-third of the open claims were more than a year old, the audit said.

“Citizens with open claims could be living in hazardous conditions due to damage sustained in a blasting incident,” the audit concluded. “In addition, the property values of individuals waiting for the resolution of claims could be affected until the damage of the property is corrected.”

In their new draft study, federal officials quote Underwood’s task force finding that “blast detonations associated with the larger mines have increased from approximately 100,000 pounds to over 1 million pounds of explosives.

“In addition to more explosives used in blasting, the time periods over which blasting may occur in a general location have changed,” the draft study says.

“For example, as the location of a typical contour mine nears a house and passes, blasting influence may last for weeks or perhaps a few months,” it says. “For a large mountaintop removal mine, removing multiple coal seams, the blasting near a home may last years.”

The new report cites an OSM study of 1,300 blasting complaints nationwide. The study found that “no instances of blast-induced vibration damage were found attributable to the mining operation by the regulatory authority.”

Federal rules already outline a variety of restrictions on blasting, the new study says.

Mine workers directly responsible for explosives must be trained and tested. Coal operators must place blasting-schedule announcements in local newspapers. Residents within a half-mile must be mailed a schedule. Mining operators offer pre-blast surveys to residents within a half-mile of the permit area.

“Once blasting is initiated, it must be conducted in a manner to prevent personal injury, damage to public or private property beyond the permit boundary, and adverse impacts to nearby underground mines or surface and groundwater availability outside the permit area,” the study says.

The report says these rules “have not changed substantially” since 1983 — before the huge growth in mountaintop-removal mining.

“The agencies recognize that, in spite of enforcement of the existing regulations and implementation of the recent program improvements, blasting concerns/complaints will continue,” the study concludes.

“Regulations provide a limited ability to control nuisance impacts,” the study says. “The regulations were designed to minimize damage potential and only indirectly address nuisance; however, citizens retain the right to take civil action against a mining operation for nuisance-related concerns.

“There have been court cases in the coalfields where mining activities have been ordered to adjust operational procedures (i.e., above-and- beyond existing regulatory program controls) to reduce public nuisances.”

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348- 1702.

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