Coal Tattoo

EPA won’t release Spruce Mine alternatives study

We’ve talked a lot here on Coal Tattoo about how U.S. Environmental Protection Agency involvement had reduced the impacts of several large surface coal mines, specifically Hobet 45 and Pine Creek.

And we’ve also noted the promise of EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson (above) that her agency’s handling of mountaintop removal issues would be a model of government transparency.

So, imagine my surprise when I got an e-mail message last week from Greg Peck, chief of staff in EPA’s Office of Water, in which EPA refused to provide me important public information about the federal agency’s review of the Spruce Mine permit.

Recall that we previously asked on Coal Tattoo about potential alternative methods for mining the coal at the Spruce Mine site without doing as much environmental damage as the plan proposed by Arch Coal and currently being considered for a permit veto by EPA.

EPA officials had gone so far to say in one public document, the regional office’s 84-page recommended determination on the permit veto:

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.

None of EPA’s other documents explained this statement or provided details of the agency’s “analysis.” And when I asked the EPA press office for a copy of the analysis, I was told to file a formal Freedom of Information Act request. So that’s what I did.

And now, Peck and EPA’s lawyers are claiming the analysis is protected from FOIA release under a legal exemption meant to cover inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums.

What is the analysis? It’s a report prepared by Morgan Worldwide, the firm headed by mining engineer John Morgan. EPA said they report would eventually be made public, but not until the agency finishes the process of considering whether to veto the Spruce Mine permit.

EPA’s secrecy here is pretty baffling … and to be clear, the law doesn’t require EPA to withhold documents that might fall under a FOIA exemption, it simply allows them to do so if they want.

In this instance, if John Morgan came up with a way for Arch Coal to mine its reserves without burying more miles of streams, wouldn’t it benefit EPA to make this information public? Wouldn’t that put more political pressure on Arch Coal and the industry in general in the ongoing dispute over EPA’s crackdown on mountaintop removal?