EPA won’t release Spruce Mine alternatives study

November 30, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.

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?

14 Responses to “EPA won’t release Spruce Mine alternatives study”

  1. mtnman says:

    I don’t think any alternatives can offset the damage of a project the size of Spruce. Even if it reduced the length of streams buried, there’s still all the deforestation (2200 acres plus), blasting, dust, wildlife habitat destruction, etc. You’d still end up having to put that overburden somewhere, and most likely it would have to go into one of the streams.

  2. Greenspace says:

    No surprise – But a good example of how EPA is more political, and less objective/scientific, than many would believe.

    Love the quote “her agency’s handling of mountaintop removal issues would be a model of government transparency.”

  3. mtnman says:

    The statement is taken out of context: it is from April, 2009, before Ms. Jackson announced any of her agency’s actions on Mountaintop Removal. She never said this, and it is not a direct quote.

  4. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    mtnman,

    In my blog post, that statement is not in quotes, as you are correct, it is not a direct quote. I believe Greenspace was quoting from my blog, and was not suggesting that those were Administrator Jackson’s words.

    However, there’s simply no question that EPA and Administrator Jackson — as well as others in the administration — have promised to be transparent in their handling of mountaintop removal issues.

    For example, EPA’s April 1, 2010, guidance memo, http://www.epa.gov/owow/wetlands/guidance/pdf/appalachian_mtntop_mining_summary.pdf, specifically said:

    “EPA will work with the other agencies to ensure that the
    decision making process is more transparent, with increased opportunities for meaningful community input and broad access to information.”

    Or, consider what EPA said in June 2009, when it issued this statement on mountaintop removal permits, http://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/bd4379a92ceceeac8525735900400c27/e7d3e5608bba2651852575d200590f23!OpenDocument :

    “EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers are today taking steps to enhance coordination in the environmental review of pending Clean Water Act permits for surface coal mining activities in Appalachian States. Administrator Jackson and Acting Assistant Secretary Salt have directed EPA and Corps field offices to coordinate under new procedures to ensure Clean Water Act permit decisions are fully consistent with sound science and the law, reduce adverse environmental impacts, provide greater public participation and transparency, and address pending permits in a more timely manner.”

    Those are just two examples. But most every statement EPA has made about its dealings regarding mountaintop removal and coal mining permits has included some promise of increased transparency and public involvement. So not only has EPA Administrator Jackson more generally promised transparency, she has specifically promised transparency on this issue … Ken.

  5. Walnutcove says:

    Statements, actions, and investigative information of many of our administration officials seem to only be transparent and open when they support those administrators ideas and directives.

  6. Monty says:

    It appears that Administrator Jackson is reading from another dictionary when she looks up the definition of “transparency,” but, then, this is to be expected. With what happened in the mid-term elections, the EPA is already circling its administrative wagons in preparation for a lengthy siege from Congressional “oversight hearings” that promise to effectively muzzle it for the remaining two years of Obama’s term. Just my 2 cents.

  7. KY says:

    Not sure that I would consider John Morgan the primary expert on this matter. John is fixated on side-hill fills, a concept that has its own set of controversies. Might also add that John is been used a good amount by EPA as a contractor rather than Morgan actually being used by industry. You have to ask yourself why that is.

  8. Jason Robinson says:

    KY, why is that?

  9. mtnman says:

    The primary issue is still the environmental damage that will result of Spruce No. 1 is allowed to continue. What alternative can realistically eliminate or acceptably reduce the impacts from 2200 acres of mining? Reforestation on these sites is poor at best. Water quality remains a perennial issue, and you will have a huge loss of some of the best wildlife habitat remaining in the Coal River watershed. In addition, the streams in that area are some of the most in-tact streams left in southern WV.

  10. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    mtnman,

    The point is that we don’t know what the alternatives EPA has examined are … so we don’t know … perhaps they have a proposal for mining much of the coal at the site with a smaller footprint or fewer streams being buried. We just don’t know, and the public ought to be able to see these documents.

    Ken.

  11. rao says:

    Judge Haden predicted all of it nearly 20 years ago. A law is a law is a law.

  12. ed442 says:

    Small mine footprint: I’m sure the company would go for that. Only one way to mine the coal in that case: underground!

  13. Brianna says:

    It’s really disheartening to see that the EPA will not release those public documents about the Spruce Mine, especially when Lisa Jackson emphasized how important transparency was on the issue of mountaintop removal. What do they have to hide? They are supposed to be a watchdog administration that serves the public, not hides from it. I can’t believe they would tell a concerned citizen to file a Freedom of Information Act request, only to later state that it was an “inter-agency” matter and therefore they were exempt. I agree that making all the information public would apply more pressure to both the coal industry and Arch Coal to deal with the multitude of environmental issues surrounding them and only serve to help the EPA’s cause. They don’t have anything to lose- unless they want to vote on the permit based on special interests instead of public involvement.

  14. hebintn says:

    You can call me political cynic, or you can call me realist, or you can call me Ray or you can call me Jay, but come on folks, we all know the political climate in this country now. Do you think that just possibly the Obama administration is pressuring EPA to hold this “scientific” information secret and then plans to use it later as a bargaining chip for favors from the GOPhers? Perhaps there is more than one version of the alternatives report, one favorable to us enviros and tree huggers, the other favorable to mining interests – ne’er the twain to meet. Just a question, Ken, not an accusation. We’ll see which one is finally published and what policy decision it coincides with.

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