Mountaintop removal worsens flooding, study finds
Early Sunday, rainwater, mud and debris poured down the hollows on both sides of Kayford Mountain. Residents blamed the flooding of their communities on the mountaintop-removal mine up the hill.
Earlier this year, as part of a still-unreleased study, federal experts found that these residents have reason to complain.
Mountaintop removal and other strip mining makes flooding more likely and can make floods that do occur worse, according to the study.
In fact, the study pinpointed potential flooding problems from Arch Coal Inc.'s huge Samples Mine, which straddles Kayford Mountain. The mine drains into Cabin Creek on the northern side, and Seng Creek to the south.
Mining in the area could increase peak storm runoff by up to 10 percent, according to an analysis by the U.S. Office of Surface Mining and the Army Corps of Engineers.
OSM and the Corps studied flooding potential at the Samples Mine and other operations as part of a broad study of mountaintop removal's environmental impacts.
In December 1998, federal government lawyers agreed to the study to settle part of a federal court lawsuit over mountaintop removal.
Officials from the U.S. Department of Justice promised that the study would be completed within two years. But the project has been repeatedly delayed, and no results have been formally published.
Earlier this year, The Charleston Gazette obtained thousands of pages of draft study documents through a federal Freedom of Information Act request.
Among the documents were several draft OSM and Corps studies of whether mining adds to coalfield flooding problems.
Corps and OSM engineers ran computer models to predict the runoff at the Samples Mine and another Arch Coal operation, the Hobet 21 Mine along the Boone-Lincoln county line.
At the Samples operation, the engineers studied the effects of two large valley fills. They found that one would increase peak runoff flow by about 3 percent, and the other by 13 percent.
At Hobet 21, a huge valley fill in Lincoln County would increase peak runoff flow by about 42 percent, the engineers found.
Engineers also studied the combined potential effects of the two Samples valley fills.
"The fill drainage areas are adjacent to each other and form the headwaters of the same stream," said one draft of the study.
"The cumulative analysis indicates increase in the peak flow downstream of the valley fills at a point below where the two drainages converge," the draft said. "However, the peak flow increase (8 percent) represents influences of the individual valley fill drainage areas and any additional drainage area that flows to the cumulative analysis point.
"The influence of changes in the headwater areas will decrease as the point of analysis is moved further downstream," it said. "That is, the flooding effects would attenuate downstream from the mine site." In a summary document, federal officials said that "increases in peak flow did not cause a rise in water level overtopping the receiving stream channels. Flooding typically occurs only when water levels exceed channel capacities and spread across the flood plain where residential settlements may occur." But these statements were not contained in the actual flood study documents prepared by OSM and the Corps. It was not clear who added them to the summary document.
Also, the OSM and Corps documents cautioned that "Differences in stages are very site specific and may depend on conditions in receiving streams.
"Stage differences cannot be translated up or down stream away from the computed location and results should not be generalized." The summary document said that federal officials planned to recommend that "Site-specific hydrologic analysis of the impacts of steep slope mining and valley fills on peak flows should be routinely performed as part of the permitting process." When considering permit applications, the document said, the state Department of Environmental Protection "should include permit-specific and cumulative flooding assessments' reflective of local conditions." The summary said that DEP "currently requires these evaluations and other states should also include this type of analysis." But DEP officials only started to require flood studies late last year.
If there are no residences or private property in the potential flood path, DEP requires a Surface Water Runoff Analysis (SWROA). If a community could be affected, the agency requires a more sophisticated "flood routing analysis." "The impact on flooding had not been addressed before that," said Mike Reese, environmental resources program manager with the DEP Office of Mining and Reclamation. "It was something that did not have sufficient scientific validation." Over the last six or eight months, Reese has helped to review all new permit applications and permit revisions for their potential impact on flooding. In each case, Reese said, DEP found that mining would make flooding worse. The agency has started to require companies to change mining plans to minimize the threats, he said.
"We'll have problems with flooding if we don't put more controls on these operations," Reese said Tuesday.
But final guidelines for such studies are still not complete.
On Friday, a draft was given to DEP Secretary Michael Callaghan for his review.
And agency officials have no plans to review active or reclaimed permits for site-specific flooding potential. These reviews will be done only for new and revised permits, DEP officials said.
That means mines like those on Kayford Mountain will not be studied for flood potential, or made to reduce that potential, unless they apply for major permit changes.
"We have no approved permits at Samples with a SWROA," said Joe Parker, deputy assistant chief of the DEP mining office. "Some of those older permits would not have had one on them."