Coal Tattoo

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.