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|The mines take all the coal — and 50% of the small streams|
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Multimedia from The Center for Public Integrity Washington DC. Video filmed in the mine and the effects above ground.
The mines take all the coal — and 50% of the small streams
Report: One-half of Headwater Streams Permanently Damaged By Longwall Mining
The "longwall" coal mining method is an underground mining method, but the results can easily be seen on the surface when the subsidence occurs. Coal companies own the coal but most of the surface is owned by farmers and other rural residents. The mining companies are liable under Federal and state mining laws for repair of homes and replacement of domestic water supplies.
In addition, Federal and state laws that protect streams and springs are supposed to apply, but some claim that those laws are not enforced, and point out many dried up springs and damaged streams. Mining companies and government regulators contend that damage to streams is minimal and repairs itself, or at worst, can be actively repaired. But they have not produced studies to support their contention. Recently, a study sponsored by the West Virginia Water Resources Institute indicates that longwall mining does have a significant impact on headwater streams, and that many do not recover over time, contrary to industry and government assertions.
Dr. Ben Stout, III, a biologist at Wheeling Jesuit University, studied streams in northern West Virginia. Some streams were in areas were mined using the longwall method, others, in areas mined using the older "room-and-pillar" method, and some streams were in areas where no mining occurred. He also took a look at some streams where the watersheds were longwall mined up to twelve years ago. In all, fourteen different streams were sampled, investigating physical, chemical, and biological attributes.
18% of Longwall mined streams dry
Because the reference streams were chosen so that the drainage areas (square miles) and other factors were equivalent to those of the mined streams, the physical, chemical, and biological properties of the streams should be the same. But Dr. Stout found that a simple physical measure, the width of the stream, significantly decreased after an area was longwall mined--about two-thirds of the width of reference streams. This is because the streams in mined area had less water. In fact, 18% of the longwall-mined streams were dry.
Small streams are small biological worlds unto themselves. Scientists have found that the invertebrate community (insects, snails, and other small animals without backbones) of a stream tells the stream’s recent history (within a few years). If a stream is disturbed, then the invertebrate life--the numbers of them as well as the various species--will reflect that disturbance. Remove most of the water from a stream, and some invertebrates will disappear altogether while others decline in population and a few others may actually increase in numbers.
after twelve years have passed, the streams’ biology did not recover
Dr. Stout found that one-half the streams in areas that have been longwall mined show a radically different invertebrate community compared to the streams in areas that weren’t mined (or mined with a more benign method). These streams had fewer of the types of insects that are particularly sensitive to disturbance. And they had fewer of the insects that require constantly flowing water to complete their life cycle. Even after twelve years have passed, the streams’ biology did not recover, because the flow was never restored. From the biological results, Dr. Stout estimates that 29% of the headwater streams that have been longwall mined have been dewatered, and another 22% have been "partially" dewatered. Half the streams have been significantly altered by longwall mining.
Evidence that mining permanently affects springs and streams
Why wasn’t this research, or similar research, conducted by coal companies or state or Federal regulatory agencies? Why hasn’t Pennsylvania’s government (e.g., the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)) taken the complaints seriously? Perhaps DEP does not want to know what mining actually does to streams. If they have evidence that mining permanently affects springs and streams, then they would, theoretically, have to restrict mining so that the waters are protected.
Perhaps these damaged streams can be restored, and therefore, mining should be allowed, regardless of the immediate effects. A few years ago, the Raymond Proffitt Foundation asked the DEP for case studies of successful (and unsuccessful) efforts to restore springs or small streams damaged by longwall mining. They received no reply. A reasonable conclusion is that the information does not exist. But there are some examples.
Laurel Run, a small stream in Greene County, Pennsylvania, dried up after the springs that fed it disappeared after the watershed was mined in 1999-2001. A study by the Federal Office of Surface Mining indicated that the water table had dropped precipitously. In other words, the top part of Laurel Run was simply gone—the origin of the stream had moved thousands of feet down the slope. DEP’s answer was to assess a small fine, and tell the mining company to "restore" the stream. The company’s response was to pump grout into the stream bed to seal up the cracks. While that may make the stream bed watertight, it won’t restore the springs.
The promise to grout
Bureaucrats need reasons for doing things. Grouting is an easy method that needs to remain as a viable "restoration method" so that bureaucrats at DEP can approve future permits. Whenever it looks as if a stream may be damaged, the mining company simply needs to promise "grout," so that the permit can be issued. In the case of Laurel Run, shortly after the fine was assessed, and the company started grouting the stream bed, they also applied for a permit to mine the rest of the watershed. DEP approved that permit without waiting to see if this restoration was going to be a success. In July, 2004, DEP allowed High Quality Mining to undermine a stream even though mining an adjacent area had caused problems to a stream
In this case, DEP allowed mining after the company promised to grout the stream and augment the stream’s flow with water from a public water supply.
Coal company profits sacred
Are coal company profits so sacred that they can crack stream beds and steal the flow, then "restore" them using cement to seal the cracks (even if it takes years) and squirt water into them from a hose?
We e-mailed DEP to check on the status of Laurel Run, and they said "The restoration activities have not been completed; however, there is a positive trend in the results to date… Laurel Run was originally designated as an intermittent stream and it is difficult to compare current flow status to pre-mining conditions due to a lack of any data collected during a season of normal rainfall prior to undermining."
In other words, DEP will never be able to say that the restoration is not a success because it allowed the mining company to mine in the first place without gathering sufficient information. These are the stewards of our natural resources?
The mines take all the coal — and 50% of the small streams
Difficult is not the same as impossible, however, and Dr. Stout’s shows that it is possible. Find a stream, unaffected by mining and with similar geography and geology, and see what its flow and biology are like. Then you assess whether the restoration is successful. If DEP is unhappy with Dr. Stout’s study, they can conduct a Google search on "paired watershed study" and see if any of the 709 hits seems more relevant. Surely there must be some way to assess the Laurel Run restoration despite the lack of pre-mining flow data.
It may be "difficult," however, to find a similar stream that has not been affected by mining, as permits continue to be issued. A 2001 DEP report lists 15 streams damaged by mining.
Laurel Run is not on the list, and while there is no way to know if it is the only omission, information gathered by the Raymond Proffitt Foundation in 2001-2003 indicates that many springs have dried up. Because they are important to small streams, it can be reasonably assumed that many more small streams are impaired as Dr. Stout found.
It has been over ten years since the revisions to Pennsylvania’s mining laws allowed for widespread use of the longwall method. Does DEP care enough about the resources they are charged to protect before the mines take all the coal—and 50% of the small streams?
|Ray Proffitt Foundation - Pennsylvania|
Now the spring that had supplied their water has dried up, and RAG's planned earthquake has badly damaged the house. "Every house on Laurel Run Road is damaged," declares Ehmann. "Walls have cracked. Doors don't open or won't close. On some of the houses you can set a marble on the floor and it will roll to one side. Water supplies have disappeared." Under a settlement forced by Ehmann RAG is restoring the Williams' farmhouse, but it can't do much about the missing spring and brook.
What's more, if coal companies would "backstow"--i.e., fill the cavities they create in the earth--most of the subsidence could be avoided. They could use their own longwall waste, dredge spoil, "overburden" from their strip mines which they currently dump onto headwater streams, and even the right kind of municipal trash. But backstowing costs money, and because it's not required in the US, longwallers don't do it here.
European countries are not so permissive.
In Germany, where backstowing is mandatory,
Long-wall mining and its impact on water resources
In the mean time I would like to get back to the story of long-wall mining and its impact on water resources. There are some interesting thoughts here, which are related to current world developments and water and the environment.
A while back (24th of November to be correct) there was a
story in the Sydney Morning Herald about environmentalists being
quite angry that Peabody
Energy had received an environmental award for the repair job they
had done on cracks in the Waratah Rivulet which flows into Woronora
dam. I am with the environmentalists in this case and I will explain
The story is quite significant for three major reasons:
First the repair job.
Basically the long wall mining underneath has caused the overlying rock to crack which has resulted in increased surface water losses from the rivulet. What Peabody Mining had done was insert a polyurethane resin to fix the cracks. The company is not sure whether it worked and whether it will work across the whole rivulet but took the award anyway. To me this sounds a bit like an engineer who builds a faulty house, gets caught out and inserts a few brackets and receives a price for construction safety. Dodgy business, I would say.
This relates to the proposed long wall mining in the Liverpool Plains, which also boast significant underground water resources. Particularly the MP Tony Windsor has thrown his weight behind the protest groups.
Clearly this is not without self interest as the Nationals seem to have voted against ground water investigations, but support none the less. To refresh, the Liverpool plains is one of the most productive agricultural areas of Australia and partly relies on groundwater for irrigation operations. Irrigation licences have just been cut back severely under the Water Management act (up to 90% for some individuals) and it is therefore understandable that people are edgy (and knowledgeable) about their water. Luckily there is now a process and funding to look at the impact of mining on water resources. I hope they will study the Waratah Rivulet closely.
But what about the global financial crisis? Well, if coal companies are cutting back, due to a decrease in demand, I would think there is less of a rush to develop new projects. Thus it allows a much more thorough investigation of the impacts without causing too much economic damage to the coal companies. I assume they are reorganising resources and putting off investment as a response. Well maybe putting off the Caroona project and the expansion of the Metropolitan mining operation could be a start. That would allow a proper environmental investigation to take place. Only then can we, the public and the voters, weigh the different options and decide what is in our best interest.
|A view on current issues in water: Willem Vervoort, McCaughey Senior Lecturer Hydrology and Catchment Management|
|Much of the information used on these web pages has been taken from the Ray Proffit Foundation of the US. Their assistance is greatly appreciated.|
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