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Clay mining permit badly flawed, OSM report says

A new Clay County mining permit approved last week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is riddled with serious errors, according to an internal government report.

Engineers and other experts from the federal Office of Surface Mining found that the Vandalia Resources permit didn't comply with state and federal water quality rules, according to the report.

OSM officials concluded that the state Division of Environmental Protection did not adequately study how the Vandalia permit and other mining in the area will affect water quality.

In a 50-page report, OSM said that a cumulative hydrologic impact report, or CHIA, prepared by DEP "did not address the impacts of multiple operations on a larger scale than just the permit area, as required by the regulations."

Roger Calhoun, director of the Charleston OSM field office, said the report found that the Vandalia permit was deficient in a variety of ways. But, Calhoun said, OSM has no plans to make DEP do anything about it.

"We looked at that permit in trying to explain to both myself and the DEP folks what we would do different and might ask for differently in state permits if we were actually looking at the permits," Calhoun said.

Calhoun said OSM wants DEP to make changes in its permitting process over the long-term, but doesn't plan to force improvements in the Vandalia mine.

"On that particular permit, I don't know of improvements the state might make," he said. "I don't intend to make the state do anything more on Vandalia."

Lewis Halstead, assistant chief for permitting at the DEP mining office, said the agency is still reviewing the OSM report.

"We are taking steps to rectify some of those things," Halstead said.

The Vandalia permit was issued just a week after federal regulators were called on the carpet by Sen. Robert C. Byrd and Rep. Nick Rahall, both D-W.Va., for being too slow to release mining permits in the state.

Vandalia, a Pittston Coal subsidiary, already operates a mining complex on a 640-acre permit in the Bickmore area, near the Clay-Nicholas County line. About 230 miners produce 2.8 million tons of coal a year for nonunion Vandalia.

The company wants to expand the operations with 336- and 462-acre permits requested from the DEP Office of Mining and Reclamation. The new mines would involve contour and auger mining, as well as area mining, a technique similar to mountaintop removal.

In February, DEP Director Michael Miano issued the 336-acre permit for mining along Bullpen Fork.

EPA Region III Administrator Michael McCabe initially rejected the state's efforts to issue a separate water pollution permit for the mine. Ongoing federal court litigation over mountaintop removal had stalled a third permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Last week, McCabe and the Corps backed off. They allowed issuance of both the water pollution permit and the Corps' "dredge and fill" permit for the operation.

In a news release, McCabe praised Pittston for reducing the size of its major valley fill from a drainage area of 340 acres to one of 291 acres.

"This mine underwent very close scrutiny," McCabe said. "Pittston modified its application to reduce the size of fills, reduced stream impacts by 20 percent, agreed to channel clean water through the mine from the hill above, and will improve the instream sedimentation pond. These measures provided a considerable measure of environmental protection."

However, the Vandalia permit appears to violate a court settlement that required all mines with valley fills in streams draining more than 250 acres to receive more stringent "individual" permits from the Corps.

The Vandalia permit was authorized through a less rigorous, general "nationwide" permit.

Under the Clean Water Act, mining can only be authorized through nationwide permits if regulators determine that the mining's cumulative adverse impacts on water quality will be minimal.

The OSM report states that DEP did not properly study the Vandalia permit's potential cumulative impacts.

 

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

 


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