Spruce Mine Veto: Engineering study shows Arch Coal could have greatly reduced impacts at little cost

January 18, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

We broke the story in this morning’s Gazette about the findings of a previously secret engineering study which found that Arch Coal could have cut the stream impacts of its proposed Spruce Mine by half, with little increase coal-production costs.

As we reported:

Permanent and temporary stream burial could have been cut from 8.3 miles to about 3.4 miles under one alternative mining plan developed for EPA by engineer John Morgan of the Lexington, Ky.-based firm Morgan Worldwide.

The alternative mining plan would have raised production costs for Arch subsidiary Mingo Logan Coal Co. by only 55 cents per ton, about 1 percent of the expected per-ton sales price, according to the report obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

In the 48-page report dated Sept. 23, 2010, Morgan Worldwide outlined a variety of mining plan changes aimed at reducing the proposed Spruce Mine’s overall environmental impacts. The highest rated alternative would have involved dumping all of the waste rock and dirt from mining into the Seng Camp watershed, where mining was already underway through a 2007 deal with environmental groups.

“This analysis of the Spruce No. 1 Mine permit demonstrates that an alternative mine design can meet the project objective an is practicable, in so much that it is capable of being done using existing mining technology,” said the report, titled “Spruce Mine Process Technical Review.”

I’ve posted a copy of the Morgan Worldwide engineering report here. It’s interesting to note that EPA wasn’t exactly helpful in getting this report out into the public domain, denying my initial FOIA request for the document and refusing to release it until agency officials made their final decision to veto the permit.

EPA made a veiled reference to the document back in October, when its issued a recommended decision to veto the permit:

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.

And EPA’s final decision to veto the permit didn’t really provide any additional details, except again in somewhat veiled references:

… The permittee has presented only limited alterations to the permitted project that it believes would likely result in environmental improvements. These proposals included compensatory mitigation projects, new mine construction practices, and increased water quality monitoring.

EPA maintains, however, that there appear to be additional practicalbe alternative project configurations and practices that would significantly reduce and/or avoid anticipated environmental and water quality impacts to Pigeonroost Branch and Oldhouse Branch.

EPA continued:

Mingo Logan Company has expressed a willingness to take some additional steps focused on best management practices to reduce impacts, but has been consistently unwilling to consider needed actions to further reduce the 35,000 feet of direct impacts of valley fills on headwater streams or to phase valley fill construction in a manner that would allos for effective assessment of, and an adaptive management response to, adverse impacts to wildlife and habitat and anticipated water quality problems.

EPA explained in that final decision document that when it met with Arch Coal officials in November to try yet again to work something out:

… The permittee also indicated that other approaches previously discussed, such as ‘sequencing’ or ‘phasing’ of valley fills, remained unacceptable to Arch Coal Inc., due primarily to economic considerations. In the meeting, the permittee did not propose new or additional corrective actions for EPA’s consideration.

Another group of public officials who are certainly not talking at all about this report are West Virginia’s political leaders, from Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to our state’s congressional delegation.

It’s not that these folks aren’t talking about the Spruce Mine …

Take Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. He not only issued a news release last week when EPA vetoed the Spruce Mine permit, but he wrote a strongly worded letter about the EPA action to President Obama, saying:

Today’s action not only threatens an operation that could have employed hundreds of West Virginians, but it shakes West Virginians’ trust in government — leaving the impression that no matter what actions coal companies in West Virginia take to reduce, minimize and mitigate environmental impacts of mining operations, it will never be enough for EPA.

Even more to the point, in this context, Sen. Rockefeller complained to the President:

Let their be no doubt that surface mining operations can and must be done in an environmentally sensitive manner with ever-improving technology. However, as a nation we must not fall into the trap of forcing unnecessary choices between protecting the environment and having good paying jobs that support energy independence. We must demand both and find a responsible balance. Today’s decision does not strike that balance — it seeks to tip the scales.

Read that last sentence again:

Today’s decision does not strike that balance — it seeks to tip the scales.

So, after reading that, I wondered what Sen. Rockefeller thought of the Morgan Worldwide report on the alternatives that Arch Coal might have used to strike that balance. This is what a Rockefeller press spokeswoman told me:

Senator Rockefeller isn’t privy to negotiating documents.

Now, how about West Virginia’s Governor-turned-Senator, Joe Manchin? Well, I tried like heck to question Sen. Manchin about the engineering report during the press conference he held to give local television some fresh footage to use when reporting about how bad the EPA decision on the Spruce Mine was. But Sen. Manchin didn’t really have any idea what I was talking about.

Later, Sen. Manchin’s spokeswoman sent me these comments in an e-mail message:

When Senator Manchin spoke with the company, they told him that they made every effort to comply with the EPA consultant’s recommendations and simultaneously maintain an economically viable operation.

According to information representatives of Arch Coal provided Senator Manchin: The company made several attempts to find common ground over an 18-month period and agreed to use several additional mitigation measures, including reduction in the number of valley fills and extensive water quality monitoring. Full implementation of the consultant’s measures would have prohibitively increased the cost of business.

Of course, folks in the environmental community weren’t really talking about about the Morgan Worldwide report or alternative ways to mine that coal at the Spruce Mine site, either. They were more focused on praising the EPA decision and saying they hoped it marked another step toward ending all mountaintop removal.

One group, the United Mine Workers union (which does not represent workers at the Spruce site) did issue a statement that talked about how this may have been a missed opportunity to reach some compromise. UMWA President Cecil Roberts said:

It’s never a good day when hard-working people lose their jobs. The current and future job losses caused as a result of this decision will cause great difficulties for the Spruce mine workers, their families and their local communities.

Although we do not represent the workers at the Spruce mine, every job is precious in the coalfields and we don’t like to see any lost. It is truly unfortunate that the EPA and the mine operator could not come to an agreement that would allow many of those jobs to be saved.

As we move forward from this day, we must be about the work of creating good, safe coal jobs in the coalfield communities, not eliminating them. We believe that can be done within a reasonable regulatory framework and with a willingness on the part of government to share that goal.

By the way, the Morgan Worldwide report also projected some “costs savings” that the less environmentally damaging proposal might provide to Arch Coal:

— $10.4 million savings on proposed mitigation, based on the reduced stream impacts.

— $600,000 in reduced reclamation costs.

— $300,000 in savings on construction of sediment control ponds that would no longer be needed.

It will be interesting to see if others in the West Virginia media pick up on this study, and even more interesting to see if some of the state’s political leaders start publicly asking questions about why Arch Coal didn’t go along with these proposals.

13 Responses to “Spruce Mine Veto: Engineering study shows Arch Coal could have greatly reduced impacts at little cost”

  1. Observer says:

    “Material handled by production dozers has been ignored, assuming all material will be hauled by truck.”

    Looks like a major cost increase for IBR#2. It doesn’t appear that we are really comparing apples to apples.

  2. Bob Kincaid says:

    Ken,

    I’m not as concerned with EPA’s quietude on the study as I am with Arch’s. After all, the study is consistent with what EPA asserted in issuing the veto, namely that there were better ways, but Arch refused them.

    On the other hand, Arch clearly appears to have wanted to keep WV’s congressional delegation in a state of blissful ignorance so as to facilitate cynical exercises like the upcoming (and at least partially taxpayer supported) rally at the Capitol.

  3. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Bob,

    Thanks for your comment.

    I find EPA’s silence interesting for two reasons:

    1. EPA’s refusal to initially release this study — and the fact that they didn’t exactly make it easy to get it once a final decision on Spruce was made — is certainly not in keeping with Administrator Jackson’s promises to run an open agency or her specific pledge that the mining permit process would be conducted with transparency; and

    2. I’m wondering why from a political standpoint the administration didn’t want to push this information out there to combat the very sort of debate you’re talking about.

    Ken.

  4. PJD says:

    Ken,

    If Arch didn’t incorporate this alternate plan into the submitted plans for the NPDES permit, or the Corp’s of Engineers 404 and EPA 401 certification, then I would not normally expect the EPA to have a copy of the alternate plan at all. Why were they able to produce a copy?

    And being as it seems they did have a copy, I can see their reluctance for releasing a plan that could be confused by the public for the real plan being deliberated on.

    – Paul

  5. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    PJD,

    As the print story noted, this report by Morgan Worldwide was prepared FOR the Environmental Protection Agency, which is why they had it and were forced to provide it to me under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
    http://wvgazette.com/News/201101171363

    That is also made clear in the introduction to the report itself, http://media.wvgazette.com/static/coal%20tattoo/SpruceMineMorganReport.pdf

    I’m not sure what you’re saying the public is or would be confused by.

    Ken.

  6. Moderate says:

    EPA seems a bit infatuated with the work of John Morgan. He is hired by EPA frequently. Not sure why he is considered “the man” for all of these alternative suggestions. It isn’t like there aren’t other capable mining engineers out there, John certainly doesn’t hold the market on all of the answers. His most common suggestion is the infamous side-hill fill which is fraught with all kinds of stability question marks.

    Now, some comments about the study:

    1) It does not eliminate impacts. Therefore, it will be opposed by the handful of environmental interests that recognize surface mining as acceptable within certain parameters.

    2) It does not eliminiate surface mining. Therefore, it will be opposed by most environmental interests.

    3) EPA doesn’t know what it wants to do. It is scared to make a decision and is petrified it will lose in court. EPA’s objective is not to solve the problem like the majority of the public’s interest is, rather EPA’s main interest is can they prevail in court. That is what motivates EPA in virtually every action they take.

    4) How many miners die because of the increased hauling distance?

    5) I suspect the company resisted changing their plans since their permit requests had previously been approved, albeit not fully litigated, but approved none-the-less. To accept a change would weaken their legal position.

    6) Finally, had the mine made some changes would EPA approve the new mining plans recognizing that there is no such thing as surface mining without some impact? Any disturbance activity is going to have an impact, the question is how much and how long. EPA is faced with the same legal challenges be it 10000 acres or 1 acre, yet there seems to be some thought that there is a acreage line in the sand that is okay or not okay. What is that, who decided it, and what does it mean?

    My sense is that there are some people out there who have no interest whatsoever in ever seeing another surface mining operation being approved, and there are mining companies and others out there that are resisting that resistance to the extent that dialogue has ceased.

    In the meantime there is the moderate majority who apparently have no voice in the discussion while these polar extremes dominate the news.

    My view – we need mining and we need it done in as responsible and reasonable manner as feasible. We also need to have decisions made quickly and accurately without endless animosity and cost. Most would call that common sense. Others, however, won’t accept that because it detracts from their objective. It seems time for the more reasoned and sensible majority to speak up to shut up the extremes on both sides.

  7. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Moderate,

    Thanks for your comments … on most issues, probably, polar extremes dominate news coverage….

    But wouldn’t you say that a story about a report like this one by John Morgan are quite different from that — here’s a story about a report that shows how mining could have gone on, without much lesser impacts.

    Ken.

  8. Monty says:

    Seems to me that the botton line is Arch wanted to save that 55 cents a ton. They gambled on things going the way they have always – until now – gone in WV, the way King Coal wants them to go.

  9. rhmooney3 says:

    It is my unterstanding that Arch did alter the initially proposed mining and reclamation plan more than a decade ago in response to concerns raised by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

    While I am sure the alterated plan proposal that the EPA funded is surely feasible there can be a multitude of considerations as to why Arch would decide not to adopted it. (Saying that the proposal was workable since it only increased the “by only 55 cents per ton, about 1 percent of the expected per-ton sales price” is not sole consideration.)

    I am always very concerned about rushes to judgement and this situation still has a long ways yet.

  10. Casey says:

    Excellent comments by Observer and Moderate. I do not put any faith in Morgan cost increase of only $0.55. As noted, eliminating dozer production, as well as substantial cast, would raise the cost greatly. Also there would be a substantial increase in the number of trucks and operators required to haul all of the loader/shovel yardage back to the Seng valley fill. These are large, additional costs versus the shorter hauls proposed.

    Arch reduced the the mine size by about 1,000 acres and received the required permits after an exhaustive EIS. Why didn’t Morgan propose hauling all the material to Boone County or some other distant location on some old disturbances? I think it would be just as realistic. Does Morgan have a PE license?

  11. Miner2049r says:

    With respect to dozing, the report just didn’t factor this in … So the extra $0.55 or $1.5-million annual would be on the high end. Dozer production is a cost saver at most mines.

    What is truly lacking is an answer to this question: Is the alternative able to have a mine sequence that keeps haulage to a minimum, stripping ratio constant, and coal production steady enough to meet contractual obligations? Somehow I think this would be difficult to meet in the alternative proposed.

    Environmentally speaking though, it’s interesting EPA seems to favor the big massive fill. If their aim is water quality, does such a structure promote this? I would have thought a more natural appearance design would have prevailed.

  12. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Casey,

    I believe if you look at Morgan Worldwide’s Website, you’ll see that the three personnel who primarily worked on this report for John Morgan’s firm all are registered Professional Engineers.

    http://www.morganworldwide.com/staff.php

    They were Jack Burchett, Brian Goff, and Garrie Krueger.

    Ken.

  13. Observer says:

    If you want to find the incremental cost when going from IBR#2 to Alternative 1 (0.55 per ton), the costs associated with IBR#2 shouldn’t be changed. By assuming all material is hauled instead of a haul/push mix on IBR#2, there is increased costs associated with changing the push portion to haul. It should have been accounted for and shown.

    From table 1, 6 D-11 production dozers are proposed for this permit. I wonder what Arch is planning on doing with them.

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