EPA Halts Development of West Virginia Coal Mine

In a rare action, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has halted development of Mingo-Logan Coal Company's Spruce No. 1 mine in West Virginia.

Mar 1st, 2011

By Patrick Crow, Washington Correspondent

In a rare action, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has halted development of Mingo-Logan Coal Company's Spruce No. 1 mine in West Virginia.

The agency's action was the first retroactive denial of a mining permit. Although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers already had approved the permit, EPA held authority under the Clean Water Act (CWA) to overrule that decision. The Mingo-Logan mining permit was first proposed in the 1990s and has been surviving legal challenges since then.

The agency said, "The proposed Spruce No. 1 Mine would use destructive and unsustainable mining practices that jeopardize the health of Appalachian communities and the clean water on which they depend."

The EPA action came after more than a year of negotiations with the mining company, talks that ultimately failed to produce an agreement. EPA said it would not let Mingo-Logan Coal Co. dump waste into streams without a plan to avoid irreversible damage to water quality.

The agency noted that last year it successfully negotiated with another West Virginia mining company on a plan to eliminate nearly 50% of its water impacts and reduce contamination while increasing its production.

EPA said its decision against the Spruce No. 1 mine was based on several environmental and water quality concerns. It said the mine would have disposed of 110 million cubic yards of coal mine waste into streams and would have polluted downstream waters.

Jon Devine, a Natural Resources Defense Council attorney, said, "In the face of the political and industry forces pressuring EPA to ignore the damage this mine would cause, it took guts for the agency to follow the science and the law."

Tierra Curry, with the Center for Biological Diversity, said mountaintop-removal coal mining has destroyed more than 500 mountains, more than 1 million acres of hardwood forest, and more than 2,000 miles of streams in Appalachia.

EPA's determination did not affect the Seng Camp Creek mine at the Spruce. It reached an agreement with Mingo-Logan Coal regarding that mine during litigation.

Hexavalent Chromium

Environmental groups have claimed that scores of leaking coal ash sites across the country are sources of hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing toxic chemical which has been found in some drinking water systems.

The report -- by the public interest law firm Earthjustice, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Environmental Integrity Project -- urged the federal government to tighten its regulation of coal ash dump sites used by coal-fired power plants.

It said the chromium that leaches from coal ash sites is nearly always the hexavalent type, which is the most toxic form. It said at least 28 coal ash sites in 17 states have released chromium to groundwater at levels far exceeding a proposed drinking water standard for hexavalent chromium.

In January, EPA issued a guidance to help local water utilities address public concerns over the possible presence of hexavalent chromium (chromium-6) in drinking water. The guidance provides recommendations on where the systems should collect samples and how often they should be collected, along with analytical methods for laboratory testing.

EPA has a drinking water standard for total chromium, which includes chromium-6, and requires water systems to test for it. Testing is not required to distinguish what percentage of the total chromium is chromium-6 versus other forms such as chromium-3, so EPA's regulation assumes that the sample is 100% chromium-6.

The guidance was issued shortly after the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found chromium-6 contamination in the drinking water of 31 of the 35 U.S. cities sampled.

Meanwhile Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both California Democrats, have introduced a bill requiring EPA to set an enforceable drinking water safeguard for hexavalent chromium. Boxer is chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Hydraulic Fracturing

The EPA is continuing to reconsider its regulations on the use of fluids in the hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells. The practice apparently has contaminated groundwater supplies in some areas.

The agency has forwarded a draft plan for its proposed hydraulic fracturing study to its Science Advisory Board (SAB), which will review the plan along with public comments on it. EPA will revise its study plan in response to the SAB's comments and then begin the study.

Last March EPA announced it would conduct the study, using the best available science, independent sources of information, and a transparent, peer-reviewed process. The initial research results and study findings are expected to be disclosed in late 2012, with the goal of an additional report following further research in 2014, the agency said.

The proposed research would include the full lifespan of water in hydraulic fracturing, from acquisition of the water, through the mixing of chemicals and actual fracturing, to the post-fracturing stage, including the management of flowback and produced or used water and its ultimate treatment and disposal.

Separately, three Democratic Congressmen have charged that some drilling companies have illegally injected diesel fuel into the ground during hydraulic fracturing operations. The allegations were made by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.).

They said that without obtaining Safe Drinking Water Act permits, the companies injected more than 32 million gallons of diesel fuel, or fluids containing diesel fuel, in hydraulically fractured wells in 19 states between 2005 and 2009. Diesel fuel contains benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, which are toxic in water at very low concentrations.

In other Washington news:

-- EPA said the Usibelli Coal Mine, near Healy, Alaska, has agreed to pay a $60,000 penalty for Clean Water Act violations. EPA said the mine had 11 unpermitted discharges into nearby creeks and had 10 violations of its discharge permit limits between April 2007 and July 2010.

-- The agency said Mount Tom Generating Co. LLC, has agreed to a $40,814 fine for violating its CWA permit for five months while expanding its coal-fired power plant at Holyoke, Mass. The company discharged muddy storm water into the Connecticut River.

-- EPA said the Iowa Department of Transportation and three of its contractors have agreed to pay a $60,000 civil penalty for violating the terms of a stormwater permit issued for the U.S. Highway 30 construction project in Tama County. The contractors were: JB Holland Construction Inc., of Decorah, Iowa; Peterson Contractors Inc., of Reinbeck, Iowa; and Scheckel Construction Inc., of Bellevue, Iowa.

-- The agency said Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack would pay a $39,000 penalty for unpermitted discharges to the Delaware River and spend $24,000 to reduce water pollution from the facility from its horse racing facility in Chester, Pa.

-- EPA said Rose's Oil Service, a shipyard and fuel oil distributor in Gloucester, Mass., will pay $130,000 for discharging pressure wash water and stormwater without a CWA permit.

-- It said Promet Marine Services in Providence, R.I., will pay $290,000 for using paints that exceeded volatile organic compound and hazardous air pollutant limits of the Clean Air Act and discharged contaminated pressure wash water into the Providence River.

--EPA said Arch Coal Inc. has agreed to pay a $4 million dollar penalty for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act in Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky. Under the settlement, it will change its operations in those states to ensure compliance with the Clean Water Act.

--The U.S. Coast Guard and EPA plan to improve their enforcement against illegal discharges of pollutants from marine vessels. They regulate more than 61,000 commercial ships based in the U.S. and more than 8,000 foreign ships operating in U.S. waters.

--EPA said Holcim (US) Inc. has agreed to pay a $50,000 penalty for unpermitted stormwater discharges to the Weber River at the Devil's Slide Quarry in Morgan, Utah.

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