Whitesburg KY

Public hearings set on EPA permit questions

Three public hearings have been set for June on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s objections to dozens of coal mining water quality permits.

The first hearing will be June 5 in Frankfort, and the other two will be June 7 in Pikeville, from noon to 4 p.m., and then from 7 p.m. until p.m.

The issue is whether 36 state permits issued to mining companies in 2010 and 2011 sufficiently protect water quality from mining activities that include blasting mountains to get at coal and filling in streams with waste rock.

None of the permits in question directly involve mines in Letcher County. A listing of the permits in appears in a public notice advertisement elsewhere in this edition of The Mountain Eagle.

According to The Courier Journal of Louisville, state environmental regulators requested the hearings to help resolve a long-running dispute between them and the federal agency over how to enforce water quality regulations at new or expanded surface mines.

“We believe our permits fully comply with and satisfy all of EPA’s objections,” said R. Bruce Scott, commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection.

EPA has effectively blocked the permits with formal objection letters. Specifically, the EPA has focused on something called conductivity, or how easily water conducts electricity.

The agency has found that the ease with which water conducts electricity is a good way to determine a stream’s health because it indicates the amount of dissolved solids such as sulfates, magnesium, calcium and sodium. Streams with lower conductive levels typically have lower levels of those pollutants and are better able to support tiny creatures that form the base of the food chain.

EPA officials did not return a request for comment to The Courier-Journal, but have previously defended their decision to block the eastern Kentucky mine permits, saying the action was based on the “best science available” to protect Kentucky waters.

They have noted in their objection letters to the state that by Kentucky’s own accounting, 1,199 stream miles in the Upper Kentucky River watershed are impaired, with coal mining identifi ed as a suspected source. That’s in addition to another 487 stream miles in the Upper Cumberland River watershed and 780 stream miles in the Big Sandy, Little Sandy and Tigerts Creek watersheds, according to EPA.

Scott told The Courier- Journal the state has proposed that mining companies conduct biological studies of potentially affected waterways before mining and then take steps to make sure the companies maintain that existing level of river or stream quality as a requirement of their permit.

The hearings could potentially turn out large crowds, and turn into a wideranging political debate.

“It gives the citizens of the coal fields a chance to speak directly to the agency that’s been making decisions about mining without talking to them,” said Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, an industry group that has sued the EPA with the state over the matter.

Judy Petersen, executive director of the Kentucky Waterways Alliance environmental group, told The Courier-Journal she hopes there will be plenty of discussion about the vision Kentucky residents have for Appalachian rivers and streams in addition to any talk about the future of coal.

“There has to be a reasonable compromise,” she said, with continued coal mining “without completely destroying our streams and rivers.”

She said the hearings set in motion a process to “end the stalemate” between state and federal environmental officials, with EPA officials likely making a decision on the permits later this year.

Compiled from staff and AP reports.

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