A third public hearing to accept comments on a draft wastewater discharge permit for Johnson Run surface coal mine in Trimble Township Monday evening drew a flood of comments from citizens who oppose the mine, with not one citizen speaking in favor.
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) convened the hearing at Burr Oak Lodge in Trimble Township. It ran from 6-9 p.m.
The applicant company proposes to mine approximately 36 acres of land via surface mining and 253 acres by auger and highwall mining methods, according to provided OEPA factsheets.
Westmoreland Coal Company originally applied for a wastewatesr discharge permit in July 2016. A public meeting on a draft permit was held Feb. 15, 2018, followed by a public information session on May 7, 2018, to inform the public of steps taken to address concerns over the permit sought by the company.
Following this, Westmoreland Coal Company was purchased by CCU Coal and Constructions LLC after Westmorland filed for bankruptcy; a new permit application was filed July 9 of this year under the new company ownership.
As was the case with the previous permit application, the newest one has generated substantial public opposition among community members and local environmental advocacy groups over what they say will be harm to water quality in the area and downstream.
Many of these concerns were voiced during Monday’s packed meeting, including criticisms from environmental advocacy groups. These included charges that the state EPA omitted its own scientific findings on the quality of the water in Johnson Run and aquatic life in the Johnson Run stream and its water tributaries., information that would have triggered environmental protections.
Monday’s meeting focused specifically on the submitted application for the permit to discharge wastewater from mining operations and other runoff from the site into treatment ponds.
The state EPA indicated that no significant change had been made to the resubmitted permit from when it was originally filed under Westmoreland Coal Company.
Mining would involve a total of five mining pits and treatment ponds. Each treatment pond would discharge into Johnson Run and Sunday Creek watershed, according to EPA officials at the public hearing.
During the meeting, Erin Sherer, an environmental engineer with the state EPA, discussed changes in the proposed permit, including one of the concerns cited most often, potential flooding.
The EPA determined that “certain deficiencies” in the original wastewater discharge permit were revealed after the first public hearing, including flooding, Sherer said. The agency has re-evaluated parts of the plan in order to address the original concerns heard through the last meeting, she added.
“We worked hard with our ODNR (Ohio Division of Natural Resources) colleagues and the company to understand the hydrology in the area and how that water was going to be treated properly.” Sherer said.
In order to address flooding, she said, the state EPA and ODNR visited the site during a flood event, subsequently coming to the conclusion that wastewater treatment pond designs needed to be re-evaluated to ensure that the integrity of the water treatment system is maintained in the event of flooding.
Despite reassurances by EPA and ODNR officials that measures have been taken to protect watershed tributaries, project opponents at the Monday hearing expressed doubts that the the mining company has the capacity to mitigate negative effects on water quality resulting from the mine.
“Westmoreland’s bankruptcy is just one in a string of bankruptcies across the country,” said Zachary Schultheis, a farmer from nearby Perry County. “Companies engage in a shell game cycle – mine, declare bankruptcy, sell – which allows them to avoid their responsibilities to the public, miners, regulators and our environment.”
CCU Coal recently announced plans to cut 205 jobs, over half of its workforce. The job cuts were primarily due to major electric utility AEP’s decision to close one of its coal-fired power plants in Conesville in Coshocton County, the Columbus Dispatch reported earlier this year.
Given the company and its predecessor’s history in the areas and recent job cuts, citizens opposing the mine predicted that CCU will provide very little to Athens County, and that its coal mine will reverse water reclamation efforts worth millions of dollars.
Also, environmentalists at the hearing charged that the state EPA will be allowing violations of federal and state law in regard to the anti-degradation policy, when the mine harms animal species in Johnson Run such as fish and macroinvertebrate organisms.
That policy lists minimum conditions to be met to satisfy state and federal water quality standards, meaning no pollutants can be discharged if they will cause a drop in water quality standards.
State EPA staff in their field testing of Johnson Run in 2017 identified the presence of cold-water and key macroinvertebrate organisms that indicate high-quality streams and one cold-water fish species.
Roxanne Groff of Amesville, a member of the Athens County Future Action Network, charged that the EPA will violate required protections by allowing the degradation of water quality in Johnson Run, disregarding federal and state anti-degradation policy.
“There is clear evidence within the record that the information leading to the conclusion of lowering the water quality of Johnson Run and its existing use must have been manipulated with an abusive discretion by the administration,” Groff said at the hearing. “That is shame on the OEPA, and there must be a follow up meeting to have transparency in the OEPA decision-making process.”
Other area citizens also placed their testimonies on the record, with all comments in opposition to the project. Various other concerns about potential damage to Johnson Run and its tributaries were also voiced.
In regards to what actions will be taken after the public meeting, after reviewing public comments and recommendations from technical staff, the director of the state EPA will issue or deny a permit. There is no set date yet for such revisions, according to state EPA officials.
If a permit is issued, the U.S. EPA will review the permit application, stating yes or no, and the state EPA will announce a final decision soon after.
The state EPA will accept written comments on the Johnson Run Creek wastewater discharge permit application through Oct. 14. Anyone may submit comments or request to be on the mailing list for information. To comment or receive information on the permit application, email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.