Saving Craft’s Run for a Cleaner Future

Saving Craft’s Run for a Cleaner Future

By Richard Webster

Staff Attorney

When I first visited the Coresco Coal Ash Dump near Morgantown, W.Va., I was shocked to find that Craft’s Run, the stream that drains the dump, ran orange in its lower reaches. It turned out this was due to a major seep of acid mine drainage from underlying coal seams. Going further up the stream, we saw a huge pile of coal ash on one side of the stream and trucks dumping yet more ash on the other side. Although these piles are permitted as “minefills” they look like huge landfills creating mini-mountains of coal ash.

Delving deeper into the data, it turned out that four phases of the dump had already been permitted and the company was planning a huge expansion. The baseline data for the expansion showed that the water quality in the stream was fine in the headwaters but became more and more polluted as it passed the coal ash dump and mine seeps. By the lower reaches, the stream was totally dead, highly acidic, and bright orange with iron, which is toxic to fish.

When we came back to sample the stream, a person who lived next to the stream came out of his house and asked if we were going to do anything about the pollution. The sampling showed the stream contained toxic levels of characteristic ash pollutants like boron and conductivity – a sign of salts that make freshwater streams uninhabitable for many sensitive organisms.

We sued Coresco on a variety of theories that encompassed direct pollution from permitted discharges, pollution from unpermitted seeps on their land, and groundwater pollution. Yesterday we filed a settlement that will make that resident’s wish a reality, provided we get the required government approval and the judge’s sign-off.

Coresco has agreed to intercept the large mine seeps that are killing the lower reaches of the stream and divert them to a treatment plant. That will ensure the stream is no longer orange and is no longer acidic. It will also enable us to measure whether the coal ash pollution alone is causing unacceptable biological damage; we were not able to do this definitively before because of the mine pollution.

Finally, this case was the first to show that government scientists were right when they warned coal ash minefills could cause major pollution and the industry was wrong when it defended them. We have used the data gathered during this case to prove that minefills need to be better regulated by the federal government because state programs fail to deal with characteristic ash pollutants like boron and conductivity, fail to properly monitor surface and groundwater impacts, and fail to provide for any remedial action when monitoring shows problems.

The federal government is scheduled to come up with rules to regulate minefills later this year. We know that the rules will be better because we gave hard data to the staff working on the rules. Heeding the data would ensure that streams close to dumps like Coresco get cleaned up, not polluted more.

We need to keep the pressure up so that the rules are based on reality not politics. 

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