Some in the Eastern Coalfields say the Environmental Protection Agency is unfairly targeting the coal industry with what they call arbitrary water quality standards while leaving other industries free to operate under less lenient regulations. In effect, they say this targeting is an effort by the federal government to shut down coal mining through the refusal to issue mining permits and increased costs for companies who do receive approval to operate.
Joey Lewis, who works with an environmental consulting firm in Leslie County, told the Herald during an interview on Monday that he is aware of one permit that is being held up due to the state Division of Water’s concern with conductivity levels in local waterways based upon a recommendation by the EPA.
According to Lewis, some permit applications are on hold until coal companies can amend their water quality statement to reflect an order imposed by the EPA noting that conductivity levels, which reflect the amount of dissolved solids such as minerals or metals in the water that could hamper aquatic life forms, should not go above 500 microsiemens per centimeter. Lewis said that despite the EPA recommendation to the Kentucky Division of Water, there is currently no federal regulation that he is aware of stating that companies can not add to the conductivity beyond that 500 figure, and in as much little evidence that conductivity over that level is detrimental to aquatic life.
“They have come up with something that’s terribly arbitrary, and because they have the right atmosphere in Washington, this thing has snowballed on the [coal] industry,” he said.
Conductivity levels can raise due to run off from mining operations where the surface has been disturbed and minerals or metals are exposed. The more material that runs off into streams or waterways, the higher the conductivity level, and therefor the higher level of potentially harmful dissolved solids.
Lewis said there has only been one study conducted that correlates with the EPA’s decision, and that study used inexact information to determine that mayflies, whose presence is generally thought to be an indicator of water quality, can not habituate waters with a conductivity over 500.
As a result, Lewis noted that coal companies who do get approved permits will have to begin chemical testing on water areas such as silt ponds above what their permit requires once conductivity levels reach 500 microsiemens per centimeter. The cost for those kinds of tests is about $500 per week per pond, but as Lewis noted, the results of the first test won’t be returned until about 30 days.
While Lewis said their is no formal regulation that limits the conductivity levels near mining operations, he said it appears other industries are not being held to the same standards as the coal industry.
Lewis cited a University of California, Davis study that notes the conductivity of waters near their sewage plant not exceed 900 microsiemens per centimeter, 400 above what the coal industry is currently being held to.
But overall, Lewis said there is not enough information for the EPA to begin instituting recommended restrictions on conductivity levels, especially when there’s not enough information to make a logical determination beforehand.
Lewis said this recommendation from the EPA will affect not only surface mines, but also deep mining operations as well. While he noted that there is no norm for conductivity levels in waterways near coal mines, for those levels that go above 500 there will be an increased cost. And if that cost is something the companies can not afford, it could spell harm for the industry.
“If I’m a coal operator and I can’t afford $2,000 a month to test, I have to quit,” he said. “If the money’s not there, you can’t afford to do it.”
That’s a notion which Randy Walters, a radio host and coal industry supporter in Harlan said he agrees with.
“It would be devastating to the coal industry for that to be enforced as it can’t even be realistically enforced anywhere without causing a total shutdown of a facility such as all sewage plants and any other business that uses water,” said Walters.
Walters, who penned a proposed revision to state regulations to deny the use of water conductivity that was the basis of Wednesday's committee hearing in Frankfort, said the coal industry is being unfairly targeted by what he called a federal government over reaching its authority.
“This is just another example of the federal government overreaching the power the states intended for it to have,” he said, adding that he’s hopeful that with Wednesday’s hearing a bill will be presented to the full Senate to revise state regulations regarding conductivity levels.
And that committee meeting was led by committee Chairman Brandon Smith, R-Hazard, who said he sees this whole issue as an attempt by the Obama administration to shut down coal mining. Smith said he is unsure if he will have any power to change the way the Division of Water reviews permits in regard to conductivity levels, but he said at the very least more people will become aware of the issue.
“We’re going to shed a light on it, and make more people aware of what we’re actually fighting,” said Smith. “And by having this hearing, it allows us to get LRC (Legislative Research Commission) and other legal minds and other groups to take a look at what we’re fighting.”