The Pine Creek Mine: Did EPA do all it could do?

October 22, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.

The Pine Creek No. 1 Surface Mine in Logan County would cover 760 acres, or about 1.2 square miles — the equivalent of 575 football fields.

Coal industry readers of this blog might find it hard to believe, but folks in the environmental community aren’t always especially happy with what I write.

For example, I’ve heard from more than one person about this week’s two posts, “Wondering about the Spruce Mine” and “What about the alternatives?

The general beef is that environmentalists aren’t especially happy with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s approval of several key mountaintop removal permits, including Hobet 45 and the Pine Creek No.1 Surface Mine, and don’t want EPA to also cut a deal that would get the Spruce Mine OK’d.

In fact, there’s no question that most — heck, probably all — environmental groups want to see mountaintop removal abolished or banned. Activists want to see legislation passed to do this, or they want EPA to reinstate the old “fill rule” language that would block most valley fills.

And while coalfield political leaders and industry folks insist that the Obama administration is undertaking a “war on coal,” the environmental community is just as convinced that the current leadership in Washington is not doing nearly enough about the vast damage being done by mountaintop removal.

Case in point: EPA’s decision earlier this year to allow Arch Coal’s Coal-Mac subsidiary to move forward with a permit for its Pine Creek No. 1 Surface Mine near Ragland in Logan County.

This is what the Sierra Club had to say about the EPA decision:

We had high hopes that the EPA’s more stringent guidance for mountaintop removal coal mining would mean protection for our communities, but apparently we were mistaken. It’s time to turn words into action and end this destructive practice.

And here’s how the Rainforest Action Network responded:

Pine Creek is the litmus test for the EPA’s new approach to mountaintop removal mining permits in Appalachia – and we can see that they are happy to see this devastating practice continue.

The massive Pine Creek Surface Mine and the neighboring communities and watershed suffer from the cumulative impacts of being surrounded by other mountaintop removal coal mines. This permit would allow Arch Coal Inc.’s Coal-Mac to dump toxic mining waste into three entire valleys.

Interestingly, the Rainforest Action Network hired the fine folks from Downstream Strategies in Morgantown to take a closer look at the Pine Creek permit and write a report about its potential impacts and whether it fits in with EPA’s stated guidelines for when such projects meet the Clean Water Act. The report by Rory McIlmoil and Anne Hereford is posted here, and I thought we would take a closer look at what it found.

Of the 455 square miles of land in Logan County, surface mining and valley fills have impacted nearly 80.8 square miles, or about 18 percent of the land area in the county, according to Downstream Strategies.

First, let’s remember what permit changes EPA said led it to sign off on approval of the Pine Creek proposal. Here’s how EPA summarized those changes in a news release:

Reduce Stream Impacts: The original mine plan proposed to have the full mine area disturbed and all three proposed valley fills under construction within 12 to 18 months of commencing operations. EPA worked with the company to reduce stream impacts significantly.

Protect Water Quality: EPA worked with the Corps and company to ensure mining related conductivity (a measure of salinity) remains at levels that will not cause or contribute to degradation to water quality or streamlife. Extensive chemical and biological stream monitoring is required to demonstrate that conductivity remains below acceptable levels, set in the EPA guidance, before the Corps and EPA will approve additional mining. If this condition is not achieved, Coal-Mac is not authorized to proceed with the construction of the next valley fill.

Sequencing Valley Fill: EPA reached an agreement to sequence valley fill construction so that no new mining is approved by the Corps and EPA unless it is demonstrated that water quality standards are being met and public health is being protected.

Enhance Mitigation: Coal-Mac proposed on-site stream restoration and creation of 40,000-plus linear feet of stream. The plan includes a significant monitoring plan and benchmarks for success, an adaptive management plan that provides back up plans if the projects are unsuccessful. It also includes upfront financial assurances. The applicant’s benchmarks of success include biological, chemical and physical measures that are intended to replace the lost functions within the immediate watershed. EPA believes the proposed mitigation is consistent with Clean Water Act regulations.

Avoid Cumulative Impacts: To address cumulative impacts, Coal-Mac has offered to deed-restrict three areas previously permitted to be filled on the Phoenix No. 5 Surface Mine operation, where five valley fills were authorized. Two valley fills have been constructed and Coal-Mac will deed-restrict the three-remaining unfilled sites. Those areas will not be subject to filling now or in the future. This is an avoidance of impacts to 3,900 linear feet of stream channel.

But here’s what Downstream Strategies had to say about those issues and this mine that EPA approved:

— First, there’s no guarantee that the second two valley fills on the Left Fork of  Pine Creek won’t be constructed. If the first fill meets EPA’s conductivity guideline, the company can move ahead with the others. According to Downstream strategies:

… Then, Coal-Mac would be able to proceed with construction of the second valley fills, thereby increasing the potential impact on streams in the Left Fork. Additionally, the impact on 14,530 linear feet of stream channel is likely to reduce the available load capacity of the local stream system. In other words, there will be nearly three miles of streams, and therefore, three miles of channels lost for transporting rainwater runoff from the mine site and valley fills. This could have severe implications for flooding potential in downstream communities.

— Next, how about this idea that Coal-Mac has agreed to deed restrictions that would prevent three proposed valley fills from ever being built on the company’s nearby Phoenix No. 5 Surface Mine? EPA says this will avoid impacts to 3,900 feet (nearly three-quarters of a mile) of stream channel “a 39.5 percent reduction of impacts within the Pine Creek watershed.” Well, as Downstream Strategies points out:

… Through this statement, EPA is ignoring the fact that the net impact of streams in the Pine Creek watershed would [still] be a positive, rather than a net reduction.

Should the mining proceed, the total direct impact to streams within the Pine Creek watershed will total approximately 4.1 miles. Total length of stream in the sub-watershed … amounts to 11.2 miles. Therefore, according to our GIS analysis, the proportion of streams in the Pine Creek stream system impacted by surface mining will increase from 17 percent to 37 percent, more than doubling the total direct impact to the watershed.

— Also, Downstream Strategies argues that EPA wrongly did not examine the cumulative impacts over a broader area:

… Approximately 150 total miles of streams in Logan County have been directly impacted by surface mining, out of a total of 976 miles of streams within the county. Therefore, according to a basic analysis of the GIS data, approximately 15 percent of streams in the county have been mined through or filled as a result of surface mining activities.

— More to the point, regarding whether this specific Pine Creek Mine permit complies with EPA’s own new conductivity guidelines, Downstream Strategies reported that EPA’s approval of the permit:

… Makes no mention of baseline conductivity levels in either the Right or Left Fork of Pine Creek. The only mention of existing conductivity levels are those measured in the streams below the three proposed valley fills associated with the Phoenix No. 5 permit that are being deed restricted for the purpose of mitigating the stream impacts from the Pine Creek permit.

… Finally, and perhaps more importantly, the USEPA letter does not provide the public any indication that USEPA, in order to protect against cumulative impacts to watersheds, has required Coal-Mac to submit data and water quality and discharges from all “adjacent or similar projects” or their associated SMCRA and Section 404 permits. This is significant given the scale of existing impacts to the Pine Creek and other surrounding watersheds from past mining, most of which has been conducted by Coal-Mac.

— In addition, Downstream Strategies notes that EPA has said that mining companies “must avoid and minimize their direct, indirect and cumulative adverse environmental impacts to streams, wetlands, watersheds and other aquatic resources.” But, Downstream Strategies says:

… The elimination of three valley fills — that have yet to be constructed — while still approving one, and potentially two or three new valley fills and their associated sediment ponds, does not achieve the stated intent of this guideline.

There are still existing impacts from multiple valley fills that have been previously constructed in the Pine Creek watershed, and any new valley fills will add to those impacts. Additionally, there is no mention of the potential indirect impacts that are likely to occur downstream of the surface mine.

In essence, USEPA by falsely claiming a reduction in cumulative impacts, is ignoring or distracting from the fact that the net impact to streams in the Pine Creek watershed from the Pine Creek surface mine will still be positive, not negative. Once the Pine Creek mining operation is completed, the net cumulative impact to streams in the watershed will exceed the impacts that existed before the mining occurred.

11 Responses to “The Pine Creek Mine: Did EPA do all it could do?”

  1. Barry says:

    Eighteen percent of Logan County plundered. Wow. Any idea what that figure would be for Mingo County?

  2. Jason Robinson says:

    Barry you can find data like those in the GAO report “SURFACE COAL MINING: Characteristics of Mining in Mountainous Areas of Kentucky and
    West Virginia”

    Table 3 on page 22 of that report doesn’t report all the acreage disturbed by surface mining, but does report the acreage under open permit in 1990 and 2008. If you add the two together (assuming that there is no overlap) you get about 59,300 acres… or around 20 percent of the county land area.

    Not everything under open permit is disturbed, but conversely not everything disturbed is reported in this table.

    i think the more important metric, and i haven’t read this closely enough to see these results in the report, would be the % area of this watershed that has been disturbed. Recent science has found severe ecological degradation associated with surface coal mining disturbances as low as only 2% of a watershed but these results vary as the underlying geology varies.

  3. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    I quoted that figure from the report in my post:

    Should the mining proceed, the total direct impact to streams within the Pine Creek watershed will total approximately 4.1 miles. Total length of stream in the sub-watershed … amounts to 11.2 miles. Therefore, according to our GIS analysis, the proportion of streams in the Pine Creek stream system impacted by surface mining will increase from 17 percent to 37 percent, more than doubling the total direct impact to the watershed.


  4. Jason Robinson says:

    Ken, stream lengths are a different metric than the % of watershed disturbed. Petty et al 2010 (Landscape indicators and thresholds of stream ecological impairment in an intensively mined Appalachian watershed) use a metric that includes some information from both measurements.

    that study calculated a “mining intensity” metric, which is basically the sum of [the ratio of mined area to subwatershed area, divided by the maximum cumulative mine density observed in the containing watershed in] and [the length of coal outcrop in the watershed divided by the stream length of that watershed, divided by the maximum coal outcrop density in the entire watershed].

    % Area disturbed is much more straightforward and many studies demonstrate an impairment threshold at 10-15% watershed disturbance (see Palmer and Bernhardt for more). It’s not the same as stream length, and if these streams behave the same as most other streams, merely reducing the amount of stream segments destroyed while holding the area of the watershed disturbed constant WILL NOT PROTECT WATER QUALITY.

  5. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Sorry Jason, I misunderstood what you were saying … I don’t believe that the RAN/Downstream Strategies report includes the figure you’re asking about.

    But on page 8, it says that roughly 18 percent of Logan County has been disturbed and that “an even greater percentage of the land within the Pine Creek sub-watershed” had been disturbed.

    Perhaps if one of the folks from Downstream Strategies is reading this, they could jump in and provide the exact figure.


  6. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    But as I read your post again, I’m not sure that is exactly the same measure, and it probably a rougher estimate than what you’re talking about.


  7. Rory McIlmoil says:

    Sorry folks, I’ll have to get back to you on Monday. I’m (late) getting on the road. Have a great weekend.

  8. Casey says:

    I’m looking at the aerial of the mining project and then read Sierra Club’s comment “We had high hopes that the EPA’s more stringent guidance for mountaintop removal coal mining would mean protection for our communities….”. It looks like the Pine Creek permit is in the middle of nowhere and there’s no communities around it. Did they look at the site or just issue a standard media response.

  9. Elizabeth says:

    Casey, the world is getting smaller and smaller and what we do in one part of the world, be it burning coal, dumping trash into the ocean, or burning the rainforests to raise more beef, eventually affects communities everywhere.

  10. Andrew says:

    A quick check of Google Maps shows residences all around the proposed mine site:,-82.035942&spn=0.069367,0.127373&t=h&z=13

    The mine may seem to be in the middle of nowhere, but it is so large that the area will cease to be “nowhere” once all of that land is disturbed- explosions in the center of the site will certainly be heard, felt, and likely even seen by residents on the mine’s border.

  11. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Casey and Andrew,

    This issue is addressed in the report by Downstream Strategies … See Section 2.4 on page 10:

    “The closest existing town to the proposed mine is Oilville, just southeast of the mine, and at a distance of 0.4 miles from the nearest portion of the Pine Creek Mine (See Figure 1). The next closest is Barnabus directly to the east, at a distance of 1.7 miles. The town of Omar, just north of Barnabus, is 2.4 miles northeast from the mining boundary, and the town of Ragland to the southwest of the mine lies at a distance of 3.6 miles from the mine. The town of Pine Creek, shown nearby to the mine in Figure 1, is listed as a populated town in the 2000 Census. However, personal accounts and an examination of current aerial imagery (2010) suggest that the town has since been depopulated.
    While no communities will be directly impacted by the mining operations, Census block data show that approximately 750 residents lived immediately downstream of the proposed Pine Creek surface mine (to the town of Chauncey along Island Creek just northeast of Omar), or in the immediate area of the Pine Creek watershed in the year 2000. This is significant given that the mining, the associated conversion of forestland to mined land, and associated stream loss and sediment build-up in the remaining streams, are all likely to increase the likelihood and severity of flooding beyond that which has resulted from past mining activities in the Pine Creek and Island Creek watersheds. In fact, in both 1996 and 2004, Island Creek communities were impacted by heavy floods that some residents have attributed to surface mining and logging in the area.”


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