Preventing further stream pollution from coal

Preventing further stream pollution from coal

By Jim Hecker, Environmental Enforcement Project Director

As you drive into Charleston, West Virginia, on Interstate 64, there used to be a billboard that read, “YES, COAL” and below that, “Clean, Carbon-Neutral Coal.” It was paid for by a company that supplies equipment to coal mines. This message epitomizes what coal boosters think about coal: when they were pressed to explain how coal could be carbon-neutral, they said that coal has the same amount of carbon in the ground as it does when you burn it in a power plant. Of course, the truth is that carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere has a totally different effect on global warming than when it is locked underground.

I want to talk about the other phony claim that coal is “clean.” New scientific research over the past decade has revealed that coal poses a serious problem for water quality.

Coal began as peat in swamps 250 million years ago. The peat was full of microbes that breathed sulfate instead of oxygen. The result of their metabolism was sulfide, which in wetland sediments was transformed into pyrite, an iron-sulfide mixture. Over geologic time, the peat became coal and rock packed with pyrite and trace metals like selenium. Pyrite and selenium are the central problems today with coal and water quality.

During mining, the coal and rock are broken up, increasing the surface area, and exposing the coal to air and water. That exposure oxidizes the pyrite, releasing sulfuric acid. When this acid hits the rock, it dissolves some of the rock, releasing dissolved salts like sulfate and toxic metals like selenium into nearby streams. The dissolved salts increase the level of conductivity in the water. Conductivity is the electrical charge of the water, and it goes up as the water gets saltier. Fresh water in undisturbed Appalachian streams has a conductivity of under 100 and sea water has a conductivity of about 50,000.

Water coming out of a mine site often contains sulfate and conductivity levels 20 or 30 times higher than water from unmined sites. Selenium levels are also far higher. The more mining you have, the more conductivity and selenium you get.

What effect does all of this mining have on streams?

High selenium causes fish deformities like misshapen mouths, crooked spines, and larval fish with both eyes on the same side of their heads. And high conductivity also wipes out entire types of aquatic insects that can’t tolerate the pollution. These bugs are the foundation of the stream ecosystem; their diversity and abundance are the primary scentific measuring sticks for determining if a stream is healthy. As biodiversity declines, stream functions also decline. A stream that lacks these insects violates water quality standards for biological integrity and therefore is listed as impaired under the Clean Water Act. Today, 6,000 stream miles in West Virginia are biologically impaired; one-third of that impairment is due to coal mining.

Since 1986, about a billion tons of coal have been produced in southwestern West Virginia. The environmental cost of that production amounts to the biological impairment of 19-38 percent of streams in that region.

What are we doing about this at Public Justice? First, we have challenged permits issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the disposal of mine waste in streams, contending that such disposal would cause significant degradation of water quality in violation of the Clean Water Act. On March 19, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit heard oral argument about one of these disposal permits (for the Highland Reylas Surface Mine).

Second, we have enforced violations of selenium limits in water discharge permits. These lawsuits have been successful in imposing penalties and forcing mining companies to begin treating their discharges to remove selenium contamination. That requires advanced treatment technology and is very costly. Patriot Coal’s liability for selenium treatment at its West Virginia mines is over $400 million, which led it to decide last year to stop large-scale surface coal mining in that state.

Third, we are bringing lawsuits to enforce violations of permit limits that prohibit activities that materially contribute to or cause biological impairment. We settled the first of those cases last year. The mining company agreed to take actions necessary to achieve a stream index score showing no biological impairment.

All of this litigation has put a dent in the problem, but the water quality degradation will continue unless the states with these mines recognize that their current policy on selenium and conductivity is not working and is not preventing stream impairment.

[“Coal Miner,” oil on canvas painting by Sara Jordan, West Virginia University]

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