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Longwall mining is ruining streams, wildlife officials says

Monday, July 10, 2000

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Longwall mining subsidence has caused an eight-mile stretch of Enlow Fork, once a pretty, babbling trout stream with a natural assortment of riffles and runs, to become little more than a series of slack-water pools filled with muddy sediment and few fish.

Enlow is among 81 streams and unnamed tributaries in Washington and Greene counties that either already have been degraded by eight longwall mining operations or could be soon, according to a review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"We're pretty concerned about the effect of longwall mining on streams," said Ed Perry, assistant supervisor of the wildlife service office in State College. "We wanted people to know that we're looking at this issue, that we know there's a problem on Enlow Fork and that we intend to study the other streams to determine what the mining effects are."

The wildlife service on Friday met with representatives of the state Fish and Boat Commission, Game Commission, U.S. Geological Survey, Greene County Conservation District, and environmental and conservation groups in Waynesburg.

John Fulton, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said there were already good pre-mining studies of many streams, and his agency is now seeking funding to do follow-up reviews of the hydrology, biology and structural impact on streams that have been undermined.

"If this is a problem common to all of the longwall mine sites, if the streams are subsided and the water is altered, then it's a major problem for the industry," Perry said.

Elizabeth Pilsbury, outreach coordinator for PennFuture, a statewide environmental organization, said longwall mining has an insidious effect on streams.

"We're talking about water loss rather than the orange streams caused by acid mine drainage and that's much different," she said. "The streams are ponded by the subsidence and that's ruining some of the most valuable resources in two of Pennsylvania's poorest counties."

Longwall mining is a deep mining technique that removes all of the coal from a seam and then allows the rock "overburden" to collapse, causing surface subsidence to occur over the mined area or "panel," usually within a couple of weeks. Surface subsidence can be as much as three or four feet.

Jennifer Kagel, a wildlife service biologist, said when longwall mining is done under a stream -- even 300 to 350 feet under a stream as is the case with Enlow Fork -- it causes changes in the stream hydrology and ground water, and subsidence and fracturing of the stream bed.

"That can mean water loss, pooling, reduced water velocity, and eventually the replacement of riffle species with slow- or standing-water species and the loss of diversity," Kagel said.

In Enlow Fork, she said, a wildlife service study shows 22,000 feet -- more than half -- of the eight-mile length of stream undermined by Consol Corp.'s longwall operation has subsided.

Studies by Consol's mining consultants, Civil & Environmental Consultants Inc., also show a significant decline in aquatic life in the stretches of affected stream.

"The creek now consists of a series of deep, sediment-laden pools," Kagel said. "That changes the existing uses of the stream that are protected by the state and federal Clean Water Act."

Perry said the under-stream mining also may violate the state's underground mining law, which requires a coal operator to, "using the best technology currently available, minimize disturbances and adverse impacts on fish, wildlife, and related environmental values."

Perry said the best way to do that would be to prohibit longwall mining under the streams and their tributaries. The wildlife service has recommended that the state Department of Environmental Protection take that position in three letters dating to October, but it has received no reply.

"Until they can show that the adverse effects they've caused to the stream are fixed, they should not be permitted to mine under more of that stream or others," Perry said.

In March, the DEP approved a mining permit revision that would allow Consol to mine under Dunkard Creek in western Greene County. The state Game Commission and the Fish and Boat Commission have appealed that permit approval to the state environmental hearing board.

Betsy Mallison, a DEP spokeswoman, said the department was in the process of commissioning a study of the impact of longwall mining on buffers adjacent to streams in Washington and Greene counties and had enlisted the help of both the Fish and Boat Commission and the Game Commission.

She said Consol had agreed to limit its mining under Dunkard to portions of the stream that the DEP classified as "intermittent." Other stretches of stream, classified by the state mining bureau as "perennial," would not be undermined.

Consol also is being required to provide a mitigation plan to address Enlow Fork, Mallison said. A spokesman for Consol was unavailable for comment.

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