Coal Tattoo


Photo from U.S. Office of Surface Mining

Naoma, W.Va., resident Bo Webb has written repeatedly to politicians (and to the American public) about the blasting he has to live with from the mountaintop removal operation near his home. See some links here and here.

The coal industry typically downplays such complaints. So does the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, which went so far as to issue a report in 2003 which said strip-mine blast is not “a significant issue” in need of agency attention.

But now, a fairly new report from the guys at the OSM Charleston Field Office outlines significant problems in the way the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection is regulating blasting. The 18-page report focuses on citizen complaints about “flyrock” — rocks and boulders from blasts that literally fly off mine sites into nearby communities. The report, available here,  is dated March 2009, but it was not posted online until last month.

Among the more serious findings:

Detailed investigations by WVDEP are performed in few of the flyrock incidents the agency becomes aware of. OSM praised the WVDEP Office of Explosives and Blasting for its investigation reports. But, OSM found, OEB was involved in only 4 of 36 flyrock events during the period examined, from January 2004 to December 2007.

When WVDEP’s Division of Mining and Reclamation performed its own investigations (rather than referring the matters to OEB), “the actions were inconsistent because of inspector’s varying degrees of expertise or guidance on procedure.”

OSM recommended that OEB “should investigate every flyrock event in detail to determine or require the company to determine the most likely cause(s) in order to devise a site-specific remediation plan.”

— WVDEP inspectors who cited companies for flyrock incidents typically ordered mine operators to clean up the off-permit material, instead of determining the cause and propsing corrective measures to prevent repeat incidents.

— OSM said that monetary fines for flyrock violations were “too low for the seriousness of the violations.” During the period examined, the median penalty was $1,200.

— Staffing issues “are a possible impediment” to strong flyrock enforcement. At the time of the OSM review, there were six blasting inspectors for the entire state. OEB was authorized to ahve 17 positions, but at the time of the report had five vacancies. (OEB, by the way, was created during the Underwood administration — nearly a decade ago — as part of an effort to reduce the damage from mountaintop removal).

— WVDEP does not track performance of the mine operator and contract employees it certifies to perform blasting at strip mines. Because of this, OSM was unable to identify the blasters or companies responsible for some flyrock problems. OSM said, “Having the ability to identify habitual offenders for enforcement purposes is critical to initiating suspension or revocation proceedings.”

Finally, OSM cautioned WVDEP that “blasting is the single most frequently occurring event at mines that has the potential to cause injury, death or property damage.”

OSM continued:

Due to the significant danger of flyrock, it is recommended that in all cases, OEB institute the cessation of blasting activity in the area where flyrock originates and adjacent areas until an investigation is completed an prescribed changes are implemented by the company to ensure there is a reasonable expectation that flyrock will not occur again from the same cause.

WVDEP’s response to that recommendation?

OEB does not feel it is necessary to issue an [imminent harm cessation order] or cease blasting on all flyrock cases. It is the inspector’s call as to whether or not the individual incident warrants an IHCO. However, OEB will take multiple incidents into consideration in determining if blasting should cease.