Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

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This article originally provided by The Charleston Gazette

May 2, 2001

Mountaintop removal forests' return could take centuries, federal study says; Wise helped block document release


Appalachian hills and hollows may not recover from mountaintop removal's damaging effects for hundreds of years, federal experts found in an environmental impact study yet to be published.

Investigators from four federal agencies found that mining operators could do much more to limit the streams that they bury with mountaintop removal waste, according to drafts of the study.

"It is crucial to find better ways of addressing cumulative impacts from multiple mining activities in the same watershed," concluded one study document, a Jan. 8 memo by project coordinator Rebecca W. Hanmer.

"The more stream headwaters in a given watershed which are filled, the more difficult it will be to protect the aquatic quality of [the] watershed as a whole," Hanmer wrote.

But the study team also concluded that limits like those proposed by a federal court order could dramatically restrict strip mining in West Virginia.

In one study, a group of mining engineers examined restrictions like those imposed by the now-voided order by Chief U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II.

They found that limiting valley fills to smaller, ephemeral streams "resulted in significant or total loss of the coal resource for 9 of the 11 mine sites when compared to the original mine site plans.

"All of the coal resource was lost for 6 of the 11 mine sites," the engineers concluded in a July 2000 draft report. "By restricting fills to the ephemeral streams, the total coal recovery is estimated at 12.1 million tons, a 92.5 percent reduction. The original estimate was 161.4 million tons.

"The team noted that even if smaller fills could be constructed, they would impact nearly every available valley, possibly increasing the overall environmental impact," the draft said.

On Tuesday, The Charleston Gazette obtained the draft documents from the broad federal probe of mountaintop removal.

Environmental Protection Agency officials hand-delivered eight boxes, containing about 40,000 pages of documents, to the newspaper in response to a federal Freedom of Information Act request.

Similar documents were delivered to the lawyers for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, who had filed a similar FOIA request.

EPA officials also provided copies to the West Virginia Coal Association, though the group did not request the records. Sources said that EPA was providing the documents to the industry "as a courtesy."

In a letter to the Gazette, EPA spokesman Bill Hoffman cautioned against drawing any conclusions from the documents.

"Please be advised that the referenced technical studies are in various stages of development," Hoffman wrote. "Therefore, it would be premature to represent any of the preliminary findings as the position of the agencies developing this EIS until the studies have undergone an interagency review and concurrence process."

In 1998, EPA officials had promised in a lawsuit settlement to release the environmental study by the end of last year.

In October 2000, then-EPA Regional Administrator Brad Campbell delayed the release of the draft study. House Speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh, and Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, objected to the release, and EPA backed down.

The documents made public Tuesday revealed that EPA tried again in early January - just before President Bush took office - to release the draft study.

This time, Gov. Bob Wise intervened to help block the study from being published, the documents revealed.

In a Jan. 18 e-mail message to other federal agencies, Hanmer wrote that she and state Department of Environmental Protection lawyer Russ Hunter were trying to finish an executive summary.

That summary was scheduled to be released before President Clinton left office.

"But we received calls from [Wise chief of staff] Dave Satterfield in the governor's office saying that the WV legislative leaders were really upset that we were breaking our agreement not to issue the EIS without completing all the studies," Hanmer wrote.

"The governor's office felt caught in the middle," she wrote. "We went back and forth a couple of times ... however, with the shortness of time, it has been impossible to have a productive exchange of views.

"Given this, I told Mr. Satterfield around 5:30 p.m. that EPA would not issue anything until we had had an opportunity to talk through the 'don't release anything' issue with the legislative leaders."

In mid-January, a draft of the executive summary was provided to Wise and to state Sen. Lloyd Jackson, D-Lincoln. Jackson's district includes several large mining operations, and the senator has overseen several legislative reviews of mountaintop removal.

On Tuesday, sources said that the state DEP had considered going to court to try to block EPA from releasing the draft documents. Officials said that some Bush administration officials were also considering blocking the release.

EPA has not said when - if ever - it will release a formal draft of its study for public review and comment.

It could take months for anyone on either side to fully examine the thousands of pages of draft documents released Tuesday.

But documents included in an initial review by the Gazette outlined some preliminary findings:

-- Regulators in four Appalachian states (West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee) have approved nearly 6,000 valley fills that would bury 75,000 acres of streams.

--- Agency experience during recent permit reviews "indicates that mining companies can do more to avoid filling long stream segments" with valley fill waste piles.

-- A broader study is needed to "to evaluate the effects of limiting valley fills to various watershed sizes." This study is underway, and no results are available.

-- Valley fills are "generally stable and massive failures are rare." Only 20 documented failures occurred out of more than 4,000 fills constructed since 1982.

-- Peak storm flows are "slightly higher during and after mining." But whether or not these peak flows result in flooding requires site- and storm-specific analysis.

-- Areas of West Virginia and the rest of Appalachia that are targeted for mountaintop removal contain "some of the best forest habitat in the United States." Loss of "forest habitat and/or forest fragmentation because of mining or other man-made disturbances is a national, regional and local environmental concern."

In the Jan. 16 EIS summary provided to Wise and Jackson, federal officials said that agency researchers "found that surface mining significantly alters terrestrial ecology."

"Plants and wildlife that require forest habitats are replaced by those that inhabit grasslands," the summary said. "Fragmentation-sensitive bird species such as the cerulean warbler, Louisiana waterthrush, worm-eating warbler, black-and-white warbler, and yellow-throated vireo will likely be negatively impacted as forest habitat is lost and fragmented from mountaintop mining/valley fill operations.

"In addition, the studies found that the natural return of forests to mountaintop mines reclaimed with grasses under hay and pasture or wildlife post-mining land uses occurs very slowly," the summary said.

"Full reforestation across a large mine site in such cases may not occur for hundreds of years."

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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