The Ohio EPA on Monday issued a final wastewater discharge permit to CCU Coal and Construction’s proposed surface coal mine near Johnson Run in northern Athens County, in spite of strong environmental protests that have been lodged against the project over the past three years.
The permit allows the discharge from a sediment pond, which collects water pumped from the mining pits, including runoff from the mine area, spoil piles, topsoil piles, haul road and non-paved parking areas, according to a news release from the EPA.
“Discharge from the project may result in a change from current water-quality conditions but does not authorize any violation of Ohio’s water-quality standards,” the release added.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has yet to issue a final mining permit for the project.
A third public hearing to accept comments on a draft wastewater discharge permit for the Johnson Run mine on Oct. 6 of last year at Burr Oak Lodge, not far from the proposed mine, drew a flood of comments from citizens who oppose the mine, with no citizens speaking in favor.
CCU Coal & Construction of Coshocton, Ohio, proposes to mine approximately 36 acres of land via surface mining and 253 acres by auger and highwall mining methods, according to provided Ohio EPA factsheets at the hearing.
Westmoreland Coal Company originally applied for a wastewater 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 Construction after Westmorland filed for bankruptcy; a new permit application was filed July 9 of last year under the new company ownership.
As was the case with the previous permit application, the newest one generated substantial public opposition among community members and local environmental advocacy groups over what they predicted will harm water quality in the area and downstream.
Many of these concerns were voiced during the Oct. 6 packed meeting, including criticisms from environmental 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 stream and its water tributaries, information that would have triggered environmental protections.
Before issuing the wastewater discharge permit as final, Monday’s news release said, the Ohio EPA reviewed the company’s application “to ensure it would comply with federal and state standards, laws and regulations.”
The Ohio EPA issued a water-quality certification for this site in September 2017, the release said, and subsequently reviewed public comments received at the aforementioned public hearings and during the review process.
Based on the Ohio EPA’s review of the draft permit and public comments received, the release said, “the agency added additional requirements for monitoring and reporting upstream, downstream, and effluent flow, downstream monitoring of total filterable residue, increased monitoring for metals that may be present, and decreased monitoring for parameters not likely to be present in the discharge.
“In addition, the permit requires CCU to operate the discharge so that there is more upstream flow in Johnson Run than the amount discharged in order to achieve an instream total filterable residue concentration protective of the existing biology downstream of the discharge. CCU adjusted its mining plan to eliminate four of the five previously proposed outfalls in order to avoid discharging to the most biologically sensitive areas of Johnson Run and to increase the time wastewater is treated prior to discharge.
Loraine McCosker of Athens, who chairs the Ohio Sierra Club’s Forest and Public Lands section, slammed the Ohio EPA’s decision on the Johnson Run surface mine. She raised three points.
First, she argued that the planned mine would take place on the West Branch of Sunday Creek, an area that has not been mined before. “The East Branch of Sunday creek, which flows into the West Branch, has been remediated with millions of federal and state dollars,” she said. “Now that investment is impacted by this… permit. Ridiculous.”
Second, she argued that this coal mine would use county roads to transport the coal from rural Athens county to the Buckingham coal plant for washing and cleaning before being placed on a train. “These trucks, which are massive, heavy, polluting and dangerous, will be barreling down roads past homes,” she said. “There was no process for this to be considered in the OEPA and ODNR permits. This is the northern part of Athens county, (with) previous coal mining, high levels of poverty.”
Finally, McCosker cited the economies of coal, noting that CCU has a contract with Spurlock Coal Plant in Maysville, Kentucky. “(The coal) will be transported to a coal plant for electricity generation. This continues the polluting and climate impacts of coal burning for electricity production, she said, adding that statistics per the Energy Information Association show decreases in demand for coal.
Another longtime opponent of the Johnson Run surface mine, Roxanne Groff of Amesville, praised the local community for providing critical input that resulted in changes to the mining plan.
Groff, a member of the Athens County Future Action Network (ACFAN), listed two of those accomplishments in an email on Tuesday. “Our successes were getting the (Athens) County Commissioners to take the close look they needed to take to change their decision on the road waiver,” she said. “Also, after two public hearings and a public meeting, we convinced the OEPA to change the stream classification of Johnson Run, putting greater restrictions on the mining process.”
She also pointed out that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, whose mining division will be asked to issue the mining permit, has not yet made that decision.
“We are not done!” she declared. “The big loss if the mine opens is to the family farm that will suffer irrevocable harm from their homestead being destroyed and all of the downstream harm to farms and the West Branch of Sunday Creek.”
In its decision to approve the wastewater discharge permit for the Johnson Run surface mine, the Ohio EPA addressed many of the concerns voiced by McCosker and Groff this week, and by critics at the previous public hearings.
For example, with regard to charges that approving the mine will perpetuate a polluting industry whose product, coal, is losing demand, the EPA cited the Ohio State Energy Profile last updated by the EIA in May 2019, showing that “almost three times as much coal is consumed in Ohio as is produced there. To meet the state's needs, coal is brought in from several surrounding states. Ohio coal is also shipped to other nearby states. CCU expects to sell coal produced at the Johnson Run Mine to an electric power plant in Kentucky as well as non-utility customers in Ohio.”
Economic benefits of the Johnson Run coal mine are detailed in the application for the mine’s NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permit, according to the Ohio EPA. It states that “approximately $44 million in coal could be recovered as a result of this surface mining operation. This revenue would be directly invested in the local and state economies for salaries, fuel, equipment and other materials and shipping, and indirectly support the state and local economies by purchase of ancillary services. Taxes generated as a result of this operation would provide revenue to schools, roads, and other public services.
“Based on the above, Ohio EPA concludes this operation would provide widespread societal benefits,” the Ohio EPA permit concludes.
As for negative effect of tourism, the EPA maintains that “because concentrations of … pollutants will increase in Johnson Run downstream of Johnson Road, the water quality will be lowered (degraded) but not to a level that would cause an exceedance of water quality standards. Tourism should not be negatively impacted,” the Ohio EPA permit states.
The permit continues, “It is unclear how the mine would discourage new economic options in the region if the stream is protected as required in the NPDES permit. Ohio EPA acknowledges the local jobs generated by this mining operation would be temporary. However, temporary jobs would still provide economic benefit to the area.”
THE WASTEWATER DISCHARGE final permit and the response to comments document are available on Ohio EPA’s website.
Issuance of final permits can be appealed to the Ohio Environmental Review Appeals Commission(ERAC). Appeals generally must be filed within 30 days of issuing a final action; therefore, anyone considering filing an appeal should contact ERAC at 614-466-8950 for more information.