To get at the coal, these machines would move about 325 million cubic yards of rock and earth, enough to fill 3.25 million railroad cars.
About two-thirds of the spoil would be put back where it was, on top of the mountains. Under Elkay Mining's plan, the other third - about 94 million cubic yards of rock and earth - would be dumped into Freeze Fork, Sawmill Hollow and other small streams.
In all, more than four miles of streams would have been filled, at least temporarily during mining. Two miles of streams would be permanently filled. The streams feed Dingess Run, which empties into the Guyandotte River near Stollings.
In January and February 1998, the state DEP's mining and water resources branches issued permits for the mine. On March 2, EPA officials objected.
"EPA is concerned about the proposed permanent elimination of at least two miles of productive streams, possible fill reduction alternatives not considered, and the adequacy of the agreed mitigation to compensate for elimination of these streams," wrote Tom Maslany, EPA Region III water division director.
By objecting to the permits, the EPA put Pittston in a tough position. The company wanted to start mining in March 1998. Mining delays can cost companies thousands, or, in extreme cases, millions, of dollars.
Elkay Mining officials flew to Philadelphia to try to work out a compromise.
Over the past two years, EPA officials have objected to two other large mining projects in West Virginia. Both times, the companies got the agency to back off without major changes in their mining plans.
This time was different, according to DEP records.
After a flurry of negotiations, the company agreed March 11 to reduce the size of the Freeze Fork mine from more than 1,350 acres to 930 acres. Elkay Mining would not mine about 425 acres of coal land it wanted to mine.
The change cut the amount of spoil dumped into streams by two-thirds, from 94 million cubic yards to 33 million cubic years, according to permit changes filed with DEP.
The EPA then dropped its objection.
"Elkay plans to create much shorter valley fills by reducing mining, primarily in the lower portion of the watershed, and by revising material handling plans to dispose of much more overburden on mined areas," Maslany wrote in a March 17 letter.
"As a result, the previously proposed valley fill covering all of Sawmill Hollow and much of Freeze Fork will be replaced by smaller fills in each stream," he wrote. "The total impacted watershed will drop from about 985 acres to 595 acres, a 40 percent reduction. There will also be about the same reduction of stream length and acreage directly impacted by filling."
In a letter sent late last week to Underwood, EPA Region III Administrator W. Michael McCabe promised such permit-by-permit reviews of valley fills will become the norm if the governor signs the relaxed mitigation bill.
"If the bill is signed, we would regretfully have little choice but to increase our reviews of individual draft permits and to object to those permits determined to have inadequate mitigation," McCabe wrote. "This could result in the necessity of coal mining companies negotiating with both DEP and EPA, delays in issuance, and possible takeover of issuance authority by EPA for specific permits if our objections are not satisfied."
McCabe went so far as to state that filling in streams with coal mine waste violates the law. Many environmentalists believe valley fills violate the law, but the EPA has not agreed with that position on the record before.
"This short-term gain of extracting coal by large-scale surface mining in mountainous areas leaves a lasting legacy of valley fills where natural, productive streams once existed," McCabe wrote.
"We have concerns that even the current policy may not adequately address stream and other impacts from the increasing number of very large valley fills and, as a result, we are assessing the overall valley fill situation, including mitigation, in the Eastern U.S. with other federal agencies."