OPED: Wolf must veto mining bill

Joanne Kilgour
Sierra Club

Coal mining giant Consol Energy, Inc. has been destroying streams in southwestern Pennsylvania with its longwall mining practices for years, and the Sierra Club and the Center for Coalfield Justice (CCJ) have been fighting them in court every step of the way. Now, just as the groups’ appeal of its mining permits is to be decided, Consol is worried it might lose. Its response? Just change the law to make it legal for it to destroy streams as long as it promises to try to restore them after the fact.

Joanne Kilgour

A bill to do just that is now one Senate vote shy of being sent to the governor’s desk. But Gov. Tom Wolf can still step up and protect streams and the future of recreational activities like fishing in these communities by committing to veto this corporate giveaway.

Traditional underground mining leaves pillars of coal behind to hold up the rock above, and the ground we walk on. In contrast, longwall mining is a highly automated process that removes all the coal, causing intentional subsidence. While this is good for company profits, it is bad for miners, because it employs only half the people per ton of coal extracted as traditional underground mining. Not to mention, it’s bad for the entire community as subsidence damages roads, buildings and streams.

In fact, residents of Greene County have already seen the results of subsidence from Consol’s Bailey longwall mine. In 2005, Consol was responsible for cracks that formed in a dam in Ryerson Station State Park. The result? The dam had to be breached, Duke Lake had to be drained, and after 10 years of contentious legal disputes over who should pay for the damage, it was determined that the dam could never be rebuilt because the ground is still shifting due to the mining subsidence.

Now, as if destroying the lake wasn’t enough, Consol is expanding the Bailey Mine and threatening to undermine and damage the streams in Ryerson Station State Park that fed the former lake. But they have a problem. The 80-year old Clean Streams Law does not allow for damage to streams to occur if the destruction is significant enough to negatively impact uses of that stream, such as fishing. Currently, the Mining Law requires companies to abide by the Clean Streams Law and do everything possible to avoid predicted stream damage in the first place, such as leaving pillars of coal under streams to prevent subsidence.

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But that would be more labor intensive and would cut into profits, so Consol convinced Sen. Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) and Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Allegheny) — who have no longwall mines in their districts — to introduce Senate Bill 624, which essentially exempts longwall mines from the key provisions in the Clean Streams Law. This bill would make it legal for longwall companies to predict and cause subsidence that results in total flow loss in streams, killing all aquatic life and eliminating recreational uses. Consol claims it can restore the streams, but these efforts often fail — and Duke Lake is a perfect example of that.

Even if they were to succeed, the restoration process involves so much heavy equipment and tree cutting that it can take years — or even decades — for the stream and banks to resemble their pre-mining state.

Consol and other longwall companies have been ignoring the Clean Streams Law for years. Meanwhile, our communities suffer the consequences. Now that CCJ’s and the Sierra Club’s legal challenge to this practice may actually force Consol to comply with the law, it is seeking to change it and have the changes apply retroactively — the legal equivalent of moving the goalposts after the ball has been kicked.

No other industry could get away with causing predicted damage and pollution in violation of the law just because they promise to clean up their mess afterwards. Imagine if we knew for a fact that a particular drilling practice would result in an oil spill, but it was allowed anyway because the drilling company had a plan in place to clean them up their mess. That type of special exemption is a threat to our system of checks and balances. And it perpetuates the treatment of coalfield communities as sacrifice zones.

When the coal seam is mined out, and the public natural resources above them are in tatters, these communities will have nothing left. How will they rebuild and diversify their economy if they cannot promise the quality of life that attracts people to rural communities? We need Gov. Wolf to stand up for these communities and promise to veto this destructive bill.

- Joanne Kilgour is director of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club.