By Stanley Jennings, President STTWA
Save the Tygart Watershed Association (STTWA) is dedicated to improving and maintaining water quality in the Tygart River and its tributaries. Over the past several years, major improvements to water quality have occurred, particularly in the treatment of Acid Mine Drainage (AMD). Acid Mine Drainage treatment facilities installed by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) on Three Fork Creek have resulted in aquatic life returning to the stream, and AMD treatment has just started on Little Sandy Creek. Save the Tygart is applying limestone sand in Beaver Creek (Barbour County). A project to treat AMD on Roaring Creek in Randolph County is currently being developed. Unfortunately, all of this good work is now jeopardized by three pollution threats to the watershed.
The first threat is a borehole drilled into the Whitetail Mine on Raccoon Creek near Newburg in Preston County. Alpha Resources owned the mine when it closed in 2009 and began filling with water. When Alpha Resources went bankrupt in 2015, the company later dumped many non-producing mines with reclamation liabilities, including Whitetail, to Lexington Coal,.\
Lexington started work on a Post Underground Mining Assessment (PUMA) in 2017, but never completed it. Meanwhile, the mine continued to fill with water, and in the spring of 2019 water started spurting from wells in Fellowsville, Acid Mine Drainage seeps appeared on York Run, and seeps also appeared on Little Raccoon Creek. The rising water contaminated the water supplies of four local residents near Newburg. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection took action only after several citizens complained. The solution was to allow Lexington to drill a borehole to lower the water level in the mine because WVDEP was concerned that blowout potential existed, and, in their own words, “Any blowout would carry a large risk of loss of life and property damage”.
A year later, Lexington has not provided the residents a permanent water supply replacement, which is a violation of the law and regulations.
The borehole was drilled in October 2019. Lexington Coal did not have either a surface mining permit or a NPDES permit for this operation at that time. While they have now applied for permits, they are still not issued as we write this story. The Post Underground Mining Assessment was officially withdrawn in December 2019.
It’s just a lucky accident that the pH and metals in the discharge so far are fairly good, but we do have concerns about total dissolved solids (TDS), sulfates, and conductivity levels. Save the Tygart has grave concern about the safety of the public downstream, the citizens whose water has been destroyed, and the impacts of the discharge on both Raccoon and Three Fork Creeks.
The second threat is a proposed underground mining revision at the Leer Mine, owned by Arch Coal, near Grafton. As part of the extension, Arch is proposing to drain the mine by drilling two boreholes (sound familiar?) which will result in a predicted artesian discharge of 3,465 gallons per minute into Three Fork Creek. According to the revision, water chemistry in the existing Leer mine pool is as follows: pH 7.19, Fe 8.44 mg/l, TDS 2156 mg/l, sulfates 902 mg/l, and specific conductance of 3120 umhos/cm.
The company proposes to build two large ponds to treat the discharge from the mine pool. The company also theorizes that treatment will be required for 38 years before the iron concentration will be reduced to 1.5 mg/l. We are very concerned about this very long term treatment proposal, plus the TDS, sulfates, and conductivity levels of the discharge.
Originally the permit called for “first mining” only under Little Sandy Creek and some of its tributaries, but the latest revision completely removes these protections. We requested an informal conference and over 40 people attended, but we think it’s likely that the revision will be approved.
The third threat is further downstream at the Martinka Mine, currently owned by ERP Environmental Fund. In last month’s Highlands Voice, Peter Morgan aptly described the bonding woes of ERP and WVDEP requesting that the company be placed in receivership. The mine has been closed for over 20 years. It was started in the mid-1970s by American Electric Power, later transferred to Eastern Associated Coal, and ultimately wound up with ERP. As the closed mine began to fill up, discharges began adversely impacting local streams, including Guyses Run and Grassy Run, as early as 1997.
The underground mine pool must be pumped to prevent artesian discharges. Treatment of both the pumped mine pool water and runoff from the refuse disposal sites is required. All of these processes are conducted at substantial annual costs, and with ERP in receivership, we are very concerned about the financial viability of the situation.
These three situations all circle back to issues about the adequacy of bonding raised in last month’s article in the Highlands Voice. 1) Lexington Coal proposes no water bond for their unregulated discharge. The land bond for the borehole will be miniscule. 2) Arch Coal is proposing a surety bond of 7.4 million dollars and an escrow account of 2.2 million dollars for their discharge that is estimated to require treatment for 38 years. But given that Arch Coal was bankrupt a few years ago, will this be enough if and when another bankruptcy occurs? 3) The ERP situation is dire. Certainly there is inadequate bonding for Martinka and the future is unclear. What is abundantly clear is that continued perpetual treatment is necessary to prevent catastrophic pollution in the Tygart. While water quality in the Tygart Watershed has improved significantly in the past few years, the Watershed now faces an uncertain future.