John Pippy, PA Coal Alliance, provided the perspective of the coal industry at the hearing the DEP Citizens Advisory Council held Tuesday on the most recent five year report on the effects of underground coal mining by DEP. Here are some excerpts from his written remarks--
According to a recent study prepared by the Pennsylvania Economy League of Greater Pittsburgh that was commissioned by PCA, longwall mining, which is used only in Greene and Washington Counties, accounted for 58 percent (33.7 million tons) of Pennsylvania’s total bituminous coal production in 2013.
In terms of economic impacts, the study found that the longwall mining industry:
1. Created 7,367 direct and indirect jobs in the two counties, making the longwall mining industry the third largest employer in this area. These are jobs with well-paying family
2. sustaining wages. For example, the average annual salary for a Greene County miner totals around $85,000, twice the average wage for all other occupations in the county. These are the kind of jobs that Gov. Wolf cited in his recent budget address – “jobs that pay” that are central to achieving his objective of improving Pennsylvania by “… rebuilding our middle class.”
2. Contributed almost $2 billion to the counties’ economy, $535 million in labor income alone. In fact, the longwall mining industry adds more than double to Greene and Washington Counties’ economies than the next largest industry.
3. Provided more than $81 million in indirect business to tax revenue.
Act 54 was as much about balancing the property rights of the mineral estate holder (in this case the coal owner) with those of the surface landowner as it was about addressing the environmental impacts of underground mining. To divorce these twin objectives would be to misstate the genesis of the law.
Act 54 created a replacement and repair remedy for damage caused by subsidence under certain structures and features but within the strict parameters of prevailing federal and state laws/regulations and specific permit requirements.
It should be noted that the remedies in Act 54 provided more for the property owner than corresponding federal standards and standards imposed by other coal-producing states.
While Act 54 did not create a blanket subsidence prevention standard, neither did it allow operators to undermine with impunity.
Therefore, in determining whether the Act’s implementation is consistent with legislative intent, the report needs to evaluate industry’s response to reported claims of subsidence damage to overlying structures, water loss and permanent impairment to the hydrologic balance.
The questions that need to be asked in making such an evaluation is whether these claims are being responsibly resolved by operators, are impacts temporary and correctable, and are there any lasting adverse effects?
The University of Pittsburgh noted during their February presentation to the Citizen’s Advisory Council that the 4th assessment period was the best assessment period since the inception of Act 54 because of the availability of data, yet in many circumstances it was noted throughout the report that the availability and quality of data often impacted conclusions made in the report.
Moreover, during previous assessment periods, member companies of PCA were contacted and involved in meetings, field views, and other data-collecting scenarios whereas during the 4th assessment period we learned that there was minimal outreach.
For future Act 54 five-year reports the PCA would like to respectfully request that our member companies, many of which have the data available to provide complete datasets that can lead to more accurate conclusions, be contacted to provide that data.
Operators agree with the researchers that the use of a limited database will not accurately reflect trends in either mining-induced flow loss or stream recovery.
For example, possibly due to the lack of data made available to the researchers, this study did not make the correlation between the decrease in stream investigations from the third to the fourth review periods and industry’s acquisition and development of mitigation techniques which were effective in addressing flow loss and material damage to stream beds.
The report offers a number of recommendations on enhancing our data gathering process through data standardization and electronic submission to create a more uniform, efficient and timely data reporting and interpretation system. PCA believes that these recommendations have merit and should be further reviewed and considered.
Perhaps the biggest flaw with this assessment report is its inability to properly frame the scope and frequency of subsidence damage occurring or not occurring to all structures and water supplies as a result of underground mining.
For example, during the third Act 54 five-year report, the authors identified 456 structures with reported damage claims out of a total 3,735 structures undermined. The frequency rate of subsidence damage occurring to land features at that time was only 12 percent.
Likewise, for that same time period, the frequency rate for subsidence damage occurring to water supplies was 25 percent (683 cases with reported effects out of 2,789 wells, springs and ponds undermined).
Thus, the bulk of these types of features undermined did not sustain subsidence-related impacts.
Incomplete data aside, the report outlines that there was an increase in the total number of reported water supply effects, 855, during the 2008 to 2013 assessment period, an uptick from 683 reported effects from the 3rd assessment period.
However, the reported water supply effects do not reflect the number that were found to be not due to underground mining.
During the 3rd assessment period 180, or 26 percent of the reported water supply effects were found to be not due to underground mining, while during the 4th assessment period 274, or nearly 32 percent, of reported water supply effects that during the reporting period from 2008 to 2013 were found to be not due to underground mining.
The report speculates that overall increase in the percentage of reported effects found to be not due to underground mining could be a result of data not being accurate due to a misclassification of water or land, or an uptick in complaints due to increased awareness or knowledge.
The PCA would also suggest that the overall increase in the percentage of reported effects found to be not due to underground mining could be attributed to the fact that they weren’t subsidence related.
We are certainly encouraged by the report’s conclusion that best management practices standardized by industry to mitigate and repair subsidence effects to structures and water supplies have minimized impacts on local residents.
While the report also acknowledges that DEP has improved its ability to interpret and mitigate the impacts of underground mining on surface and ground waters, we also agree that the Department and industry need to continue its collaborative work on developing best practices – e.g. data standardization and electronic submission – for undermining these types of features.
Finally, when reviewing the background of Act 54, the Council should keep in mind the intent of the law, which was to provide a replacement or restoration remedy for damage caused by subsidence.
This was the legislature’s solution for balancing the rights of the landowner and coal operator. It was not intended to prevent subsidence from occurring nor was it to allow mining to be conducted with impunity. It was designed to allow these two interests in land to coexist.
Within this context, PCA believes that the fourth five-year assessment report on Act 54 confirms that this law is working as it was intended, its damage repair and water restoration strategies are being carried out as intended, and there is no pattern of violations of the Act’s provisions.
A full copy of the PA Coal Alliance testimony is available online.
The Citizens Advisory Council hearing was the first of two public hearings on the 2008-2013 Underground Coal Mining Impact Report required by Act 54 to document the surface impacts of longwall and traditional room and pillar underground bituminous mining in Armstrong, Beaver, Cambria, Clearfield, Elk, Greene, Indiana, Jefferson, Somerset and Washington counties.
The Council heard comments from eight witnesses, including the PA Environmental Council, PA Coal Alliance, Sierra Club, PA League of Women Voters, the Citizens Coal Council and several private citizens living in mining areas.There will be a second hearing March 27 in California, Washington County, to take more testimony. Click Here for more details on this hearing.