More on the Spruce Mine: What about alternatives?

October 21, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.

When I wrote yesterday’s post, Wondering about the Spruce Mine: Toward a more thoughtful discussion of mountaintop removal, I hadn’t seen the commentary from our friends at The State Journal about EPA’s latest recommended decision on the largest mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history.

First, we have an editorial, EPA’s behavior is unconscionable, which opines:

Federal regulators, you see, do not worry about preserving a foundation of justice that provides predictability and fairness for individuals and corporations alike. They do not care that Arch Coal, at great expense, has adjusted its mining plans time and again to comply with the agency’s ever-changing rules. They do not worry that the government’s reneging on a lawfully obtained mining permit jeopardizes past investments, future investments, future employment and future tax revenues.

But many West Virginians who respect the law are outraged. They have a right to be.

Arch Coal already has gone to court to seek relief from the EPA’s disruptive behavior. Arch’s case, filed last April in a Washington, D.C., federal court, is straightforward: The government should not be able to grant a permit one day and then delay and threaten its use later. Companies that play key roles in our economy — and affordable energy is critical — cannot operate under such conditions.

So, The State Journal is all about respect for the law … They went so far as to call EPA’s permit review and possible veto “an assault on the nation’s legal foundation.”

I wonder if the paper’s editors  respect the law that gives citizen groups who believe the Corps of Engineers unlawfully issued the news Spruce Mine permit the right to their day in court before U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers. Because, for all of the talk that the Spruce Mine has received every approval that is needed, the citizen lawsuit challenging the permit approval has never been heard on its merits. Even if EPA were to approve the permit tomorrow, the law still gives those citizens the right to have their lawsuit heard.

As an aside, for those who might not know, State Journal Editor and Publisher Dan Page was communications director for then-Gov. Cecil Underwood back in 1999, when Underwood said that Oct. 20 — the day of Judge Haden’s ruling in the Bragg mountaintop removal case — would “go down as the bleakest day in the recent history of our state of West Virginia.” (Subscription required)

Then, we have this gem in a commentary by State Journal owner Bray Cary:

Maybe this kind of government interference works in places like Iran and Venezuela but this is America, and the people of this state and this nation deserve honesty.

Wow. Iran and Venezuela? Seriously?

I wonder sometimes if Bray reads his own newspaper.

For example, back in January, the State Journal’s great reporter, Pam Kasey, wrote this in a story about the results of EPA’s tougher review of the Hobet 45 permit:

As originally proposed, the Hobet 45 mine would have buried nearly six miles of headwater streams and contaminated downstream waters that now support healthy stream life and local recreation, the agency wrote in a media release.

Patriot achieved the approval by agreeing to a revised mining plan that eliminates nearly half of the stream impacts while still mining nearly all of the coal.

And in July, Pam wrote this regarding the results of EPA’s review of the Pine Creek Mine:

The issued permit includes key changes to the Pine Creek operation, changes laid out in a June 21 letter the EPA sent to the Corps’ Huntington District and in the agency’s own July 27 media release.

Water quality will be protected by maintaining a conductivity (salinity) level below 500 microSiemens per centimeter, as laid out in the April guidelines.

Enhanced mitigation measures include on-site stream restoration and creation of more than 40,000 linear feet of stream, with stream monitoring, benchmarks, backup plans and up-front financial assurances.

Reduction of cumulative impacts is achieved through Coal-Mac’s agreement to deed-restrict three areas already permitted for valley fills at its Phoenix No. 5 Surface Mine.

The EPA also said it reached an agreement with the company to sequence construction of three planned valley fills. The company may proceed only with the first valley fill; any additional valley fills will be allowed only if EPA and the Corps find that previous fills are not impacting water quality adversely.

So, you might think West Virginia’s media and political leaders might have found one little sentence in EPA’s 84-page recommended determination on the Spruce Mine worth paying attention to:

Analysis by Region III indicates that there appear to be alternative configurations that would avoid much of the discharges to Pigeonroost Branch and Oldhouse Branch.

What does that mean? Well, EPA does not provide details, in either the recommended determination document or any of its appendices.  West Virginia political leaders and much of the media talk a lot about finding “a balance” between the economy and the environment on mountaintop removal … you have to wonder why they don’t bother to take a closer look at what EPA’s permit reviews have achieved, and ask why state regulators themselves didn’t push to make these permits better.

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