Coal Tattoo

Late this afternoon, word came down from CONSOL Energy’s corporate headquarters outside of Pittsburgh:

CONSOL Energy Inc. (NYSE:CNX) has issued notice under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) of its intent to idle its Miller Creek surface operations near Naugatuck, W. Va., resulting in a layoff impacting approximately 145 employees. Operations impacted include the company’s Wiley Surface Mine, Wiley Creek Surface Mine, Minway Surface Mine, Minway Preparation Plant, and Miller Creek Administration Group, all located in Mingo County, W. Va. The layoffs will occur during a 14-day period beginning at 12:01 a.m., on December 30, 2012. Employees were officially briefed on the situation today. At this time underground operations will not be affected.

The release continued:

CONSOL Energy attributed the idling of its Miller Creek operations to a sequence of permit delays that has prevented the company from securing all of the necessary environmental permits required to continue mining as identified in the company’s mine plan.

Now, that release showed up in my email inbox at 5:18 p.m. And wouldn’t you know it, not even 10 minutes later, at 5:27 p.m., another release showed up saying:

U.S. Senators Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller, Rep. Nick Rahall and Governor Earl Ray Tomblin (all D-W.Va.) are outraged with the Environmental Protection Agency’s delay of a key permit that would allow the CONSOL mine and King Coal Highway to move forward.

Gov. Tomblin, for example, opined:

Once again the EPA has stepped in the way of a great project here in West Virginia. The EPA has been delaying this project for far too long. Even after losing all of these court battles, the EPA cannot seem to understand the big picture and the true scope of its authority. Instead of stalling and creating unnecessary impediments, we should be working together to put people to work, develop our infrastructure, and provide the low-priced energy that our Country needs. This project would accomplish all three of these crucial goals. I will continue to fight for our coal miners and to work with our Congressional delegation and CONSOL to make this project a reality.

Now, among the more interesting things about all of this is this little paragraph, buried at the end of CONSOL’s press release:

CONSOL Energy is appreciative of the efforts of the state of West Virginia to issue all the required permits under their jurisdiction and remains optimistic that as the company continues to work with federal, state, and local officials, it will be ultimately successful in securing the approvals necessary to enable jobs and economic development for the mine and highway project in Mingo County and the state.

Ah, but such optimism doesn’t stop our state’s elected leaders like Sen. Joe Manchin from firing off stuff that attacks “EPA’s callousness” and says “this project is a win-win and the EPA is trying to make it a loser.”

We’ve written about this project before over the last few years, and it’s worth noting that this particular mining permit, which is part of the King Coal Highway project, was first objected to by the Obama EPA on inauguration day in January 2009 (see this post and this link to read EPA’s original letter). It’s also worth remembering that EPA officials aren’t the only ones who have questioned the King Coal Highway. The Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation, for example, has objected to a no-bid contract for part of the construction, and residents have alleged parts of the project caused or contributed to local flooding.

As described by the AP:

The King Coal Highway would run 90 miles from Williamson to Bluefield and be part of the Interstate 73/74 corridor. West Virginia has enlisted coal companies to help build the road. Through these public-private partnerships, the companies keep the coal they mine while grading the land for road-building in the process. A 12-mile section opened in 2011.

Now, the last we left this project, with a post way back in January, EPA was indeed pushing the mine operator and the project’s supporters within state agencies and political offices, for changes to reduce the impacts. As explained in this letter:

The EPA’s review of the mining operator’s proposal indicates that feasible, cost effective steps are available to be incorporated into the operation to avoid and minimize the significant, adverse environmental and water quality impacts associated with the Buffalo Mountain mine. Unlike Buffalo Mountain’s mine design, modern, technically feasible and cost-effective mining practices are being proposed and incorporated by many mining companies into their mine designs with the intent to significantly reduce the adverse effects to the aquatic ecosystem.

As I explained at the time:

EPA said that this permit — a 2,308-acre proposal for the area between Belo and Delbarton in Mingo County — “is among the largest single mining projects ever proposed in Appalachia” and that “the scale and magnitude of environmental and water quality impacts from the mine as currently proposed are as significant as any mining operation we have reviewed in the pats 20 years.”


Interestingly, and as EPA notes in its letter, the Federal Highway Administration and the state Division of Highways have announced plans to conduct a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to more specifically consider the impacts of the Buffalo Mountain Surface Mine. EPA observed:

The SEIS process will provide a helpful vehicle for agencies to work together to identify improvements in the mine design to reduce potential advese impacts to water quality, public health and the environment.

But now, here’s what CONSOL is saying:

The company secured its Article III mining permit in November 2011 from the state of West Virginia. It has been working cooperatively with the state Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to secure the needed environmental permits, namely the Clean Water Act section 404 and section 402 permits, since November 2007. CONSOL Energy received news on Monday, October 29 that the U.S. EPA released its objection to the company’s 402 permit, however, that permit alone is not sufficient to allow miners to begin work.

Nicholas J. DeIuliis, president of CONSOL Energy, said:

The failure to obtain timely permits despite our efforts in planning and cooperating with multiple agencies of jurisdiction is frustrating and is having a direct impact not only on these employees and their families, but on all state residents.

CONSOL Energy has been working under a Memorandum of Understanding together with the Federal Highway Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the West Virginia Departments of Highways and Environmental Protection, and the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority since 2007 to secure the permits for development of our Buffalo Mountain mine project on which the King Coal Highway was planned for post-mine use land. It was there we were planning to reassign our workforce once the area in which they were mining was completed.  The combined mine and highway project, in addition to providing much needed jobs, would have a total statewide economic impact of $484.7 million dollars.

Stay tuned …