Mining

Tour Reflection by Alexandra Cheek

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Alex is a geology student at California University of Pennsylvania who is interning with The Center for the spring semester. Last week, she went on CCJ’s “Fracking and the Coalfields” tour with Executive Director Veronica Coptis. Below are her reflections on the experience.

An Afternoon in the Coalfields

We were standing in Enon Cemetery on a snowy, overcast morning. There amongst the gravestones and coal, I listened to Veronica tell the story of the Bailey Mine Complex that loomed over us with its twinkling lights and industrial clatter. As the largest underground mining operation in North America, the Pennsylvania Mining Complex (Bailey, Harvey and Enlow Fork) longwall mining operation is just about the size of Manhattan, but underfoot. We discussed “clean coal”, which, spoiler alert, doesn’t exist, and how intertwined southwestern PA’s people and politics are with the coal industry.

Over the course of the afternoon, we navigated through Greene and Washington counties, following well traffic all over rural southwestern Pennsylvania. Looking out the window were signs that directed the different energy corporations down the winding, crumbling, nearly single lane country roads to their respective well pads. If you weren’t in the direct path of a brine or water truck though, you could look in almost any direction and see the familiar shape of a drilling rig in the distance. We visited valley fills with their earthen dams holding back surface mining refuse, on the hillsides stark gaps in the trees where pipelines were constructed. I can’t imagine that most of the residents within these counties could have envisioned the long term effects that mining or the shale gas boom would have on the infrastructure, air quality or the landscape in their towns, let alone the not too distant future environmental impacts.

As a geology student, resource extraction and the positive and negative impacts associated with them is something that’s discussed pretty regularly, though it’s not quite the same as visiting an area that has truly been affected by it. As we hit one of our last stops, Ryerson Station State Park, Veronica talked about the emotional ties that she and many others in the area have with the park and the grief they experienced after the loss of Duke Lake. If you’re not familiar with the story of Duke Lake, in 2004 the 62-acre lake needed an emergency drawdown after cracks occurred in the dam as a result of subsidence from longwall mining operations. Duke Lake had been a hub of activity for many residents who enjoyed fishing there during the summer.

After the tour, I tried to imagine what it would be like to look out my window or drive down the road and every day encounter all of these impacts and not feel totally despondent. Or perhaps even worse, not realize the full impact on my health or environment because it’s all I’ve ever known. It’s not by chance that this type of development occurs here, and the fact that this area is abundant in resources isn’t the only reason. The areas where extraction is occurring most are often areas of poverty, without access to educational resources to make the decisions at hand or the legal resources/support to make them aware of their rights or defend them when necessary. Going on the tour gave me a personal insight to the issues that are the norm in Washington and Greene County. If you have the opportunity to chat with a CCJ team member or request a tour, I would strongly recommend doing so.


Permit to Use Beneficial Coal Ash to Reclaim Mine Waste Dump Under Review by DEP

The DEP is considering a permit application  for the beneficial use of stabilized flue gas desulfurization material (stabilized FGD or coal ash) at the over 400-acre Champion coal waste pile, the largest coal refuse pile east of the Mississippi, containing over 37 million tons of coal waste. The Champion Coal Refuse Pile is the lingering scar of Pittsburgh Coal Company’s Champion #1 coal washing operations.

Stabilized FGD, which is made by mixing by waste products from coal-fired power plants and lime or another alkaline agent, will be used in an effort to reclaim the Champion refuse pile. Stabilized FGD material will be placed on the site to promote drainage away from the waste pile and minimize filtration. This has the potential to improve the condition of the area significantly. However, if this process is not done safely and carefully, the material can be dangerous for the communities exposed to it.

According to the DEP, stabilized FGD is one way to help reclaim the coal refuse pile in Robinson Township, Washington County. However, it is important that this reclamation process is carried out safely, lawfully, and with public transparency.  Unfortunately, the permit application materials are only available in Harrisburg. Because the application materials are not available locally, we have several unanswered questions for the DEP about how they will ensure that our water, air, land, and people are not harmed by the transportation, processing and use of stabilized FDG at the Champion coal refuse pile.

Please take action below and request that the DEP hold a public meeting to provide our community vital access to information, relevant documents and plans, and answers to our questions.The DEP should also re-notice the public about this permit application, make the application materials available for review in Washington County, - and reopen or extend the public comment period so that our community’s feedback can be heard.

Send a letter to DEP using the form below:



Support Coal Miners, Urge Your Legislators to Reinstate the Black Lung Fund

Rates of Black Lung disease are on the rise in coal communities across Appalachia, but Congress allowed the excise tax that supports the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund to be automatically slashed at the end of 2018. The trust fund, already struggling to remain solvent, would need an increase from 2018 levels in order to remain a stable funding source for miners suffering from this disease.

While black lung benefits were cut, continued inaction on the UMWA’s pension fund were driving it towards insolvency, too, which - union representatives claimed - would happen by 2022 without congressional action. In order to save the pension plan, an additional $260 million would be needed so that the fund could meet its current liabilities and help cover healthcare into the future.

Take action now, send a letter to your legislator below.



Tour Reflection from Mimi Wahid

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Mimi Wahid is an intern from MIT working with The Center for the month of January. Last week, she went on CCJ’s “Fracking and the Coalfields” tour with Executive Director Veronica Coptis. Below are her reflections on the experience.

Coalfields Tour Reflection: What does it mean to be undermined?

As an intern at the Center for Coalfield Justice, I’ve heard a lot about undermining these past few weeks. I’ve been told about what happens when creeks and streams are undermined: sometimes the creekbed fractures, the water drains, the groundwater systems are affected. Something geologically permanent can disappear overnight. I’ve seen images and videos about what happens when a building is undermined: the foundation cracks, walls can shift, properties are abandoned. Something formerly sturdy can become unsafe. I’ve started to understand what the economic and environmental impacts of undermining—meaning, mining underneath structures and water sources—are. But on the tour of the coalfields I took last week, I saw what it looks like when an entire community is undermined: when a community’s power is weakened, when their strength is removed from underneath them like a seam of profit-producing coal, when respect, trust, and security are piped away like wet natural gas.

I rode in the front seat of Veronica’s car and listened as she told stories of the region. As we drove through Greene County, Veronica pointed to her right at a valley she used to play in with her siblings. She told us about how, in what felt like an overnight transformation, her favorite place to recreate on turned into a coal refuse disposal area. Sudden and dramatic transformations of land were present all throughout the tour. New roads cut through previously forested hillsides to accommodate heavy truck traffic. Valleys transformed into toxic hills as they were filled in with coal refuse. Our tour began at the Bailey Mine Complex coal preparation plant, where our attention was directed to the massive silos that store coal. Across the horizon, Veronica gestured towards two fracking well pads that, apparently, didn’t exist a few years ago. She explained that, before the wells were built, she used to point out this view as an example of the beautiful, undisturbed forests that CCJ fights to protect. In just a few years, the tour stop transformed from a message of hope to an example of the presence and power of the extraction industry.

While on the tour, I tried to imagine what it would feel like to watch the landscape around me transform; to see strips of trees clearcut to make way for pipelines, valleys filled with toxic refuse, and skies cluttered with towering cranes. I wondered how this might affect my sense of security in my home and on my land. I imagined that it would be difficult to feel powerful if I couldn’t predict or influence the changes in the air I breathe, the earth beneath my home, the water sources I drink from. On the tour, Veronica told us about the various resources, like coal and natural gas, that are extracted from Washington and Greene counties. But the tour also made me wonder about the intangible things that have been extracted: it seemed as though residents’ rights to clean water, sense of security on their land, and confidence in the region’s economic future had been removed as well. It made me wonder if there even exists a fair compensation for extraction of this scale and kind.

Going on CCJ’s “Fracking and the Coalfields” tour made me think more critically about what it means to be undermined. The tour showed me the effects of longwall mine activity through visible changes, like the empty bed of Duke Lake and the boarded up farmhouses that lined our drive. But it also showed me examples of undermining in another sense: places where the extraction industry has subverted, weakened, and removed power from residents. It reminded me of the importance of building and retaining power in communities affected by extraction. And it gave me deep respect for those with the strength to envision a different, more just, future for the coalfields.


I-70 Delays Upset Local Residents

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Mining operations under I-70 near the West Virginia and Pennsylvania border have begun and will cause delays for commuters.  These specific lane closures will last until at least the end of May, and this is just the first leg of many in the marathon of destroying and rebuilding the highway.  PennDOT executives estimate that the highway will fall two(2) to five(5) feet for this particular stretch of highway.

The Alliance Coal Company’s Tunnel Ridge Mine, currently near West Alexander, PA, will have an active panel beneath I-70 during the next phase of longwall mining, and the company said the process will occur nine(9) more times between now and 2038 under the highway.

More than a decade ago longwall mining took place under I-79 between the Waynesburg and Kirby exits in PA.  Due to the mining, PennDOT had constant monitoring of the highway, with repairs made regularly when subsidence (the sudden collapsing of the ground) occurred.  A report from the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the University of Pittsburgh found that PA taxpayers spent $19 million to monitor and repair this section of 1-79.  Again, taxpayers are left to cover the bill for a multi-billion dollar industry. How much will it cost taxpayers if they continue this destruction for another 19 years?

The statement from a PennDOT executive claiming this work would continue until 2038 shows the friendly relations our state has with coal, because permits have not been issued through 2038. According to their active permits, they are only authorized for the next few years.  Will we still even be mining coal in 2038? The state should not just assume that all of these permits will be issued or coal will still have a market in the next ten years.


Residents in Footprint of Tunnel Ridge Learn Proactive Steps to Protect Homes and Water Supplies

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The Center for Coalfield Justice along with friends from the Buffalo Creek Watershed Association held an “Undermining for Residents Workshop” at the Donegal Township Municipal Building in the evening on Wednesday 14, 2018 and nearly forty (40) people attend.

Tunnel Ridge LLC has been permitted to longwall mine a swath of coal underneath an area of West Alexander, and residents are concerned about what may happen to their water supplies and structures, such as their houses and farm buildings, after being undermined.  CCJ’s staff attorney Sarah Winner helped describe steps for residents to take that can help them protect their water sources and structures on their property.

Community members were engaged, asked questions and talked amongst themselves in hopes to better understand what the potential impacts of being undermined are and how they can ensure that Tunnel Ridge LLC is held responsible for any post-mining damages to their property and water supplies due to ground subsidence, which is the caving in of the ground after the coal seam is removed.    

If you have any questions or would like any information regarding the Tunnel Ridge longwall mine expansion into West Finley and Donegal Townships, please contact Nick at the Center for Coalfield Justice at nick@coalfieldjustice.org or 724-229-3550 extension 104.  The Buffalo Creek Watershed Association can also be contacted at info@buffalocreekwatershed.org.


Protectors of Mingo Remain Active; Ramaco Permitting Process Continues

The Protectors of Mingo (POM), a community group in Washington County, continue to monitor the ongoing permitting process for the Ram #1 mine being proposed by Ramaco LLC, a mining company predominately based in the midwest. The proposed mine would be in Nottingham and Peters Townships near Mingo Creek County Park.

This campaign has been active for 6 years, with small wins along the way. Township officials met with residents years ago to place a set of restrictions on the mine designed to protect community members, drivers and their passengers through the area, and homeowners. Currently, POM are keeping an eye on developments in the permitting process. The California District Mining Office is considering Ramaco’s permit application and have issued numerous deficiency letters to the company. In response to the latest deficiency, Ramaco is testing to determine whether the old Mathies Mine - where they plan to discharge their wastewater - is capable of handling such a discharge. The results from that test are expected by the end of November 2018, at which point POM may have a better idea of whether a permit will or will not be issued - at this point, it is difficult to judge whether the Department will or will not grant a permit.


POM continues to meet monthly. If you are interested in attending a meeting, or if you want to know more about the campaign, please reach out to Sarah Martik at smartik@coalfieldjustice.org or 724-229-3550x1.

CCJ is Going to DC

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The Center for Coalfield Justice along with partners from the Alliance for Appalachia are planning a trip to DC to advocate for the RECLAIM Act and Black Lung benefits from September 23rd - 26th, and the trip will include meeting with congressional representatives, networking, and fellowship.

Come join us and travel to Washington, DC with our group of frontline residents working for clean water and healthy communities. The Appalachian region has paid a heavy price for coal industry abuse, from degraded land to our people’s health. Our members hold a strong vision of where we’re heading and have clear goals of how we’re going to get there. We see reclamation as a key component to achieving clean water, while also providing an opportunity to boost development and job creation.

A schedule of events will be announced after registration closes.  We can provide scholarships for up to 10 people from Pennsylvania which include lodging, food, and travel. Register for the trip here.

If you have any questions, comments or concerns please contact Nick at 724-229-3550 extension 104 or nick@coalfieldjustice.org.  

Register for Washington PA People's Climate, Jobs, and Justice March

On September 8, thousands of rallies will be held in cities and towns around the globe to demand a world with clean air and energy, healthy, family-sustaining jobs, and thriving communities that work for all of us.

The Center for Coalfield Justice and Washington County United are bringing these issue home in Washington, PA to demand our local officials take action on economic, environmental, and social justice starting at 10 AM downtown in Washington and concluding with a cookout.

Private companies and corrupt politicians have been benefiting off our community's resources and labor for too long. We can have a living wage, sustainable jobs that do not treat working-class families and families of color as disposable, but we need the political will to get there. If you are tired of not having access to quality jobs, education, and a healthy environment join us in the streets to demand action!

We can change the national narrative that the coalfields, small towns, and rural communities are happy with the status quo. Together we can create the change needed in our community.

Register to attend the march and stand up for justice in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Want to help with outreach, making art, or speak at the event contact Nick at nick@coalfieldjustice.org.

CCJ Attends Public Hearing to Advocate for No Increased Discharges into Mon. River

In a room full of UMWA members and miners from Contura’s Cumberland mine, the Department of Environmental Protection held a public hearing on the draft NPDES permit no. 033511, which would increase the permitted limits for sulfates and total dissolved solids (TDS) into the Monongahela River outfall 001 near Carmichaels, PA. CCJ Campaign Coordinator, Sarah, Community Organizer, Nick, and board members, Ken and Chuck, attended the event to stand up for common-sense permits.

At issue in this permitting decision is the fact that the Monongahela River was only recently considered to be recovered for sulfates. Now that it is no longer impaired, Cumberland Mine is seeking to increase the sulfates they can discharge into the river, pushing the river to 84% of its assimilative capacity - meaning that it is extremely close to the highest level it could safely take, a level that CCJ finds to be illegal and unreasonable. Unlike permits for new discharges, the mining company is seeking an increase in the level they may discharge, and workers testified at the public hearing that jobs would be on the line in this situation. However, the company is currently operating within the existing permit requirements without the threat of job loss. They also, according to permit documents, built a brand new water treatment facility for this outfall that they have never used in the past, yet they still have been in compliance with their existing permitted limits.

For those of our members and supporters who signed our petition asking the DEP not to authorize this permit, a copy was submitted with over 250 names attached to it. We expect to be contacted with a summary of the public hearing soon, and will keep you informed of any updates on this NPDES permit.