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Valley-fill study flawed, biologist says

A coal industry study that concluded valley fills don't damage water quality is so full of flaws it is worthless, a university biologist testified in federal court on Tuesday.

Ben Stout, a professor at Wheeling Jesuit University, said the Arch Coal Inc. study did not include proper controls, enough samples or acceptable scientific methods.

"That study has a lot of technical problems," Stout said. "It would never stand up to peer review."

Arch Coal subsidiary Hobet Mining Inc. released the study, performed by Sturm Environmental, last year in an effort to blunt public concerns that mountaintop removal mining buries streams beneath valley fill waste piles.

Stout testified that the report wasn't really designed to examine the full picture of the effects of valley fills.

"It's simply taking old data and putting it together to try to make a story out of it," Stout said.

Stout testified for environmental groups Tuesday afternoon in the third day of a hearing on a request by the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy to halt the largest mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia history.

Hobet wants permits to mine a five-square-mile area along Pigeonroost Branch near Blair, Logan County.

A week ago, Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden II stopped the mine for 10 days so he could hear arguments from both sides on whether to approve a longer delay.

During cross-examination by Hobet lawyer James Snyder, Stout admitted he has not conducted any more rigorous studies of valley fill effects than the company's report.

Stout also said that his own review of the Pigeonroost Branch watershed did not include taking water samples, and would not pass peer review, the process scientific journals use to weed out incomplete or inaccurate work.

Also during cross-examination, mining engineer John Morgan stuck to his views that the Hobet mining permit application did not contain enough data about the mine's potential effects on the water system of Pigeonroost Hollow.

Haden stopped Hobet lawyer Bob McLusky in the middle of a long series of questions about specific water discharge point changes in a revised permit for the mine.

"What's the point as far as whether an injunction should issue?" Haden said. "I don't want to try the case now."

McLusky responded, "We'll have people testifying that these are inconsequential changes in the permit that have no effect on the environment."

Haden also refused to allow Joe Lovett, a lawyer for the environmentalists, to ask Stout about a state Division of Environmental Protection study that counted the amount of state streams buried by valley fills.

DEP lawyer Russ Hunter objected that the study, released by the DEP Office of Mining and Reclamation, was not complete.

"The method that has gone into this has made it really not an accurate document," Hunter said.

Instead, Lovett asked Stout what he thought the impact of filling in 800 miles of streams - as some figures suggest valley fills have done - would be on the state water system.

"I think that would be totally devastating to the aquatic communities downstream," Stout said.

Haden was scheduled to continue the hearing this morning.

 

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


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