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Residents Question Plan to Further Pollute River

Residents question plan to further pollute river
Regulators have approved a coal company’s plan to dump wastewater into the Levisa Fork.

By John Cramer

GRUNDY — Wade McNeely, a disabled coal miner, stood along the Levisa Fork, marveling at the river’s bounty and waste.

“The smallmouth bass fishing is great,” he said. “You just can’t eat them” because of contaminants in the river. “And now they’re going to pollute it even more. It don’t make no sense.”

The Levisa’s floodwaters have long worried this rural community in Virginia’s coalfields — Grundy has nearly been washed off the map many times — but now it is the river’s water quality that has residents concerned.

In one of the largest permitted discharges of water pollution in Southwest Virginia — and an illustration of what’s happening in other state waterways — government regulators have approved a coal company’s controversial plan to pump up to 10,000 gallons a minute of untreated mine water into the already impaired Levisa Fork over the next two decades.

The mine water is high in chloride, a naturally occurring chemical salt compound that’s required in small amounts for normal cell function, but is toxic in large amounts to plants, fish, animals and people.

The mine, a major shaft that descends to about sea level, contains billions of gallons of water that have seeped in for a decade from surrounding rocks and from groundwater percolating through rock layers near Virginia’s borders with Kentucky and West Virginia.

Consolidated Coal Co., a subsidiary of Pittsburgh-based Consol Energy Inc., one of the nation’s largest energy producers, says it needs to dispose of the mine water to continue its mining operations in Buchanan County.

“We understand people’s concerns, but we’re convinced that what we propose to do is not a detriment to the river,” said Tom Hoffman, a Consol spokesman.

Government regulators say Consol’s plan meets all federal and state instream water quality standards even though the Levisa Fork is already impaired by chlorides and other pollutants.

Adding more chlorides should not substantially damage the river’s aquatic life, including a fish on the state’s endangered species list, the variegate darter, according to the government regulators.

Under the federal Clean Water Act and the Virginia’s State Water Control Law, instream water quality standards are not intended to prevent pollution but to prevent aquatic ecosystems from being substantially damaged by toxic levels of pollutants.

Consol legally discharged mine water high in chlorides into the Levisa watershed for years until 2005, when chloride was added to the state’s list of regulated contaminants. That prompted Consol to seek a discharge permit.

Government regulators say the Consol project illustrates Virginia’s statewide effort to clean up its waterways in several ways: first, by regulating a previously unregulated chemical; then, by permitting only a limited amount of it to be discharged instead of unlimited dumping; and finally, by conducting a study to determine the types and amounts of pollutants a watershed can absorb and still remain within water quality standards.

“For the first time, it will be a holistic, scientific approach for this watershed,” said Allen Newman, regional water permit manager at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

But opponents of the Consol plan, who include local residents, community leaders, state officials and other mining companies, are going to court to try to stop it.

They say government regulators violated procedural rules in granting the discharge permit and that the mine water will create a “toxic” dead zone tainted by chlorides and possibly heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and other contaminants.

Opponents say it makes no sense to add chlorides to a river already impaired by chlorides.

They also criticize the federal and state permitting systems, which allows companies to test their own discharge waters in order to qualify for a permit and to largely monitor themselves afterward.

“You can’t let the fox watch the henhouse,” said Paul Smith, a disabled coal miner from Grundy. “You need independent testing.”

Newman said U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations require states to allow companies to self-monitor. The DEQ plans to conduct periodic tests to ensure Consol complies with its discharge permit, he said. The permit can be revoked or the discharge amounts reduced if DEQ tests determine the river can’t handle so much chloride.

Hoffman, the Consol spokesman, said coal mining is highly regulated and that self-monitoring works well.

“You can’t falsify documents and not expect ramifications,” Hoffman said.

Critics say the Clean Water Act, which is administered by the EPA, and Virginia’s state water control law, which is enforced by the DEQ, are too lenient, allowing a level of legalized pollution that puts corporate profit ahead of public health and the environment.

“It’s about doing the right thing regardless of what the law says,” said Jeannie Keen, a Salem resident who grew up in Grundy and still has family and friends there. “Consol is a billion-dollar company. Why can’t they partner with the community to be good stewards of the land they’re making so much money off of?”

Consol plans to spend $64 million over the next year to install a pipeline and diffuser system to pump out the water from its Buchanan No. 1 mine. The water will be discharged into a “mixing zone” in the middle of the river, where it will be diluted by the stream’s flow.

Depending on whether the stream flow is high or low, between 10,000 gallons and 400 gallons a minute will be released. No discharges will be allowed in the spring when the variegate darter is spawning.

Chloride levels will exceed maximum standards for more than half a mile downstream from the discharge pipe, but dilution is supposed to leave enough space along the riverbanks for fish to pass instinctively and for the riparian vegetation to survive.

Consol is required to regularly test the discharge water and the river water and submit the results to the DEQ.

Since 1999, Virginia has been under a federal court order to clean up its streams, lakes, estuaries and bays.

State officials are studying how much pollution the waterways can absorb and still meet water quality standards — known as total maximum daily loads, or TMDLs. The process includes determining all sources of contamination, regulated and unregulated.

A growing number of Virginia’s waterways are listed as impaired — nearly two-thirds in the latest report released this year — but state officials say that is the result of tightened restrictions and increased monitoring rather than an actual increase in pollution.

Parts of the Roanoke, New and James rivers and others waterways in Southwest Virginia are listed as impaired.

The Levisa Fork and one of its tributaries, Garden Creek, are listed as impaired by chlorides, fecal coliform bacteria and PCBs, which have prompted fish-consumption advisories.

Currently, more than 300 mining and other discharge permits for the Levisa watershed have been issued by the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy and the DEQ.

A TMDL study for the Levisa Fork is to start early next year and be completed by 2010. A TMDL study for its Garden Creek tributary is under way.

Water quality standards allow a balance between environmental protection and the local economy. Companies can seek a variance or exemption if they can prove compliance would jeopardize their financial health and the community’s economy, including lost jobs, tax revenue and ripple-effect spending.

Even though chlorides are newly regulated, Consol didn’t need a variance to meet current water quality standards for its discharge plan. The company considered treating the mine water nonetheless, but decided not to because of the high costs and the treatment wastes it would generate.

Hoffman said he hopes Virginia officials who are setting TMDLs remember that Consol’s coal and gas operations are a major economic engine for the state, contributing more than 400 jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue and other economic benefits in Southwest Virginia.

Coal mining has declined in recent years, but Buchanan County still leads the state in coal production. Consol’s Buchanan No. 1 mine is a large mine with major reserves still to be tapped.

“The commonwealth certainly has a right to protect its citizens,” Hoffman said, “but we hope as a regulated entity, they keep in mind that if we have to shut down, it’s more than just us who pays a price for that.”

The DMME’s Division of Mined Land Reclamation, the DEQ and other state and federal agencies approved Consol’s request for a discharge permit after a lengthy review.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission is expected to give the project final approval soon. The discharges could start late next year.

Among those opposing the project are the Grundy Town Council and Buchanan County Board of Supervisors, which have passed resolutions against the project and are considering legal action.

Grundy Town Attorney Tom Mullins said he will file a lawsuit — to stop the discharges or force Consol to treat the mine water before it’s discharged — if the DMME refuses the town council’s request to revoke the permit. A DMME hearing is scheduled for Nov. 29 to hear the council’s request.

“The community is very concerned any time you have the potential for the sterilization of public waters,” Mullins said.

Three other coal companies have filed a lawsuit in Buchanan Circuit Court, saying the DMME violated its own regulations by approving Consol’s discharge permit.

The suit alleges that Consol didn’t file a complete copy of its permit application with the county clerk’s office, which rendered a subsequent public meeting invalid.

Also opposing the project are Kentucky’s state legislature and attorney general, who are concerned the river’s ecosystem and drinking water will be contaminated. The Levisa Fork joins the Big Sandy River in Pike County, Kentucky.

Smith and McNeely, the disabled coal miners, said most Buchanan County residents oppose the discharge plan, but fear speaking out because coal companies still have a “stranglehold mentality” on communities that depend on mining.

“People are disheartened,” Smith said. “They figure it ain’t no use to stand up to big coal and big government.”

McNeely said he’s glad chlorides are now regulated and that citizens have a mechanism to protest, but he said many people don’t trust the government and coal companies to look out for public health and the environment.

He said Consol’s discharges shouldn’t be permitted before the Levisa watershed’s TMDL is established.

“I’m not against coal mining, but there’s a right way to do it — like playing marbles or shooting geese or anything else,” he said. “The cheapest and easiest way isn’t always the right way.”

Article is courtesy of Joan





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