In addition to the problems of dust, water contamination, blasting and other impacts of any large-scale surface mine, their fight highlights the increasingly precarious position of the Appalachian mining industry amidst a wave of coal company bankruptcies, and the likelihood that environmental reclamation costs will ultimately be laid at the feet of taxpayers.
Westmoreland Coal Company filed for bankruptcy in October. Despite Westmoreland’s public candor about its inability to deal with existing obligations — including miners’ pensions —, the company began pursuing a new 550- acre surface mining permit in an Ohio’s Perry State Forest around that same time, through a subsidiary called Oxford Mining Company.
Earlier this month, the bankruptcy court overseeing Westmoreland’s restructuring approved the sale of Oxford Mining to Charles C. Ungurean, who had previously owned the company between 1985 and 2015. Unfortunately, the sale provides little assurance that the proposed Perry State Forest mine would be any less destructive, or that the resulting reclamation obligations would be adequately honored, as Ungurean has his own history of regulatory non-compliance. In 2014, during Ungurean’s first tenure at the helm of the company, Oxford was found to have intentionally modified water discharge reports to hide violations from state regulators. This incident demonstrates a willingness to break the law and to evade accountability measures.
Below is a call-to-action from Lauren Ketcham, a farmer in Perry County, Ohio, and member of Friends of Perry State Forest.
Public Needed to Stop Strip Mining of Ohio’s Perry State Forest
By Lauren Ketcham, Friends of Perry State Forest
Like much of Appalachia, Perry County, Ohio, has a long history of coal mining. In the 1960s, nearly 4,600 acres of strip-mined land near the small town of New Lexington was abandoned by a coal company and given to the state, becoming Perry State Forest. Since then, the land has been reforested and what once was a blight upon the county has become a community asset.
Unfortunately, nearly 60 years later, another coal company wants the land in order to strip mine more than 550 acres of the forest to recover what little coal was missed during the first go-around. Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) is currently reviewing the permit application from Oxford Mining Company, and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) issued Oxford a surface water permit in December. With the water permit issued, ODNR appears poised to issue the mining permit and allow a bankrupt coal company to once again destroy this public land.
This project would have devastating impacts on the community and the environment.
ODNR has said that, if the mine proceeds, explosions could be heard and felt up to one mile away and the company could mine within hundreds of feet of homes and directly up to property lines. Local residents, who now enjoy the serenity of the nearby forest, could experience reduced property values, noise, and damage to home foundations and water wells from the blasting—which would be particularly harmful to the nearby citizens who rely exclusively on water wells and have no access to a public water system.
The project is also likely to degrade our air, water, and climate, in addition to robbing our community of a 60-year old forest enjoyed by so many people who now run, hunt, hike, fish, ride horses, and enjoy other recreational pursuits there. These popular activities support local businesses, which provide lodging, food, gas, gear, repair, and other services, and provide inexpensive, healthy, outdoor entertainment for families.
Sadly, while this social and environmental fallout is typical of mining operations, Oxford’s track record raises additional concerns. The company has had 62 permit violations at other mine sites in Perry County since 1995, including blasting violations and at least seven instances of “acid water” discharges.
Moreover, the company is at risk of forfeiting its bonds and not reclaiming existing mines, placing additional pressure on an already-stretched state coal clean-up fund. Although the company would need to pay a bond of $2,500 per acre for reclamation in advance, the actual costs typically exceed $7,000 per acre.
Ohio’s Reclamation Forfeiture Fund, which holds these bond payments, has only about $22 million to cover unreclaimed permits, but Westmoreland alone has already racked up to $155 million in reclamation liabilities in Ohio.
There’s still time to stop this reckless project. Local residents have organized a community group, Friends of Perry State Forest, that I am a member of. We are currently raising funds to help cover the costs of an appeal we filed January 22 with Ohio’s Environmental Review Appeals Commission, challenging the Clean Water Act permit issued by the OEPA. We have partnered with the nonprofit Ohio Environmental Council, but despite their generous legal support, we need to raise at least $10,000 to cover other related expenses. Please consider making a donation to Friends of Perry State Forest.
Additionally, ODNR will be holding a public meeting on Tuesday, February 26 at 6 p.m. at New Lexington High School in New Lexington, Ohio. It’s essential that we send a strong message to the state that the public cares about Perry State Forest and opposes this coal mine, so if you live in the area, please make sure to attend and share your concerns. Written comments are also being accepted.
More information, including a summary of problems with Oxford’s surface mining permit application and how to submit comments to ODNR, is available on Friends of Perry State Forest’s Facebook page.