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EPA continues to block Blair mountaintop mining permit

Federal regulators demanded Tuesday that Arch Coal Inc. consider alternatives to filling in more than four miles of streams to dispose of waste from the largest strip mine ever proposed in West Virginia.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued more specific objections to the permit for Arch subsidiary Hobet Mining Inc.'s proposed Spruce Mine, a mountaintop removal operation near Blair in Logan County.

EPA said it will not allow the state Division of Environmental Protection to issue the permit until questions about the mine are answered.

"Hobet is the largest mine ever proposed in West Virginia," said W. Michael McCabe, administrator of EPA Region III. "It covers 5 square miles and has four valley fills, each a mile long.

"Before this permit can be issued, we need to answer questions about impacts on water quality, aquatic life and habitat in the area," McCabe said. "At this point, we simply don't have enough information about the environmental impacts."

DEP Director Michael Miano said his agency hopes to meet soon with the EPA to try to resolve the Hobet permit and other mountaintop removal issues.

David Todd, spokesman for Arch Coal, said, "The specific objections in the context of a large permit are not entirely unexpected."

"We have been cooperating and discussing our permit with EPA," Todd said. "We will continue to do that and believe those objections will be resolvable."

McCabe's press office released copies of a Tuesday letter from Tom Maslany, director of water protection for EPA Region III, to Barb Taylor, chief of the state DEP Office of Water Resources.

"The proposed surface mine includes excavation of more than 400 vertical feet of overburden rock to remove 10 seams of coal in a five-square mile region," Maslany wrote.

"Overburden material, in excess of that which is proposed to be placed on top of the mined area, is proposed to be deposited in four large valley fills," Maslany wrote. "These proposed fills and associated instream sedimentation ponds will cover main stream channels of about one mile each in White Oak Branch, Old House Branch and Right Fork of Seng Camp Creek, and in about one and two-thirds mile of Pigeonroost Branch."

Maslany wrote that the mine and its valley fills would violate state and federal water quality protection rules.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, EPA can prohibit the state from issuing water pollution permits for strip mines if the federal agency believes the permits do not adequately protect the environment.

In his letter, Maslany outlined two conditions under which EPA would consider withdrawing its objection to the Spruce Mine permit:

- Hobet must prove it is not possible to mine the coal in question without building the valley fill waste piles.

EPA suggested the company consider alternatives to mountaintop removal mining, such as underground mining or other types of surface mining. EPA also proposed Hobet consider ways to pile more of the overburden back on the mined-out areas, instead of dumping it in creeks.

- Hobet must submit a plan that EPA believes would provide adequate mitigation for streams lost to the mine's valley fills. EPA believes the state's new mitigation law, signed by Gov. Cecil Underwood, does not provide for adequate mitigation.

Under the legislation, most valley fills could be permitted without any mitigation requirements.

Maslany also wrote that EPA "remains concerned it lacks sufficient information to evaluate the potential impacts on aquatic life and habitat presented by the proposed facility and associated discharges."

Hobet Mining, Maslany wrote, must establish to EPA's satisfaction that "the proposed project will not cause significant degradation to the environment on a cumulative basis relating to other existing or reasonably foreseeable future valley fill activities in the region."

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.


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