Environmentalists concerned Senate bill could undermine Ryerson waterways

April 20, 2017
State DCNR Regional Park Manager Jeff Anna and Task Force member Chuck Hunnel, who is representing Coalfield Justice, talk after Wednesday’s task force meeting at Ryerson Station State Park. - C.R. Nelson/For the Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Two Republican state senators are proposing legislation environmentalists are worried will carve out exemptions to allow coal mining beneath the streams feeding Ryerson Station State Park in Greene County.

Joe Scarnati, the senate’s president pro temp from Jefferson County, and his Republican colleague, Sen. Gene Yaw of Lycoming County, last week introduced amendments to the Bituminous Mine Subsidence and Land Conservation Act that would allow coal companies in some cases to circumvent the state’s Clean Streams Law, the environmental groups claim.

Veronica Coptis, executive director of the Center for Coalfield Justice, said the legislation is in direct response to a state Environmental Hearing Board judge’s decision in January ordering Consol Energy’s Bailey Mine to halt longwall mining near Kent Run. Coalfield Justice and the Sierra Club earlier filed a petition raising concerns that undermining near Ryerson could affect waterways feeding into the state park near Wind Ridge and the case remains in a legal battle.

“They’re trying to remove their responsibilities from the Clean Streams Law by amending the mining act,” Coptis said. “They’re asking for as special exception for a very narrow impact. They will then no longer have to comply with (the Clean Stream Law) in the way that every other industry in the state has to.”

The sections of the mining law that would be changed deal with provisions that require coal companies to notify the state Department of Environmental Protection what waterways or structures will be “predictably” impacted by mining, and then restore them after they are damaged. The amendment would allow the mining act to circumvent the Clean Streams Law in a “narrow sense,” Coptis said.

“That’s what’s problematic,” Coptis said.

The amendments would grandfather any mining permits granted before June 30, 2016, which Coptis said indicates the law centers around the coal mining near Ryerson. The DEP in December issued a permit revision to allow for mining beneath Kent Run and nearby Polen Run before the environmental groups appealed that decision.

A similar ruling in 2007 would not be affected, Coptis said.

“This kind of legislative overreach challenges our democracy and is asking the legislative branch to act as the judicial branch,” Coptis said. “The future of streams in Ryerson Station State Park are at stake with this bill, and with that the very places we have left to teach our children how to fish.”

Drew Crompton, counsel for the Senate Republicans and a member of Scarnati’s staff, called the permit challenges at Ryerson an attempt to suspend longwall mining across the state because it would impact every operation that crosses a stream or tributary. He argued the Clean Steams Law should not supersede the mining act, and that there are protections already in place to require streams to be restored.

“If you cannot suspend the steam – and they’re saying the Clean Stream Law supersedes the mining law – then how will you mine?” Crompton said. “You can imagine what they would do to mining all areas of the commonwealth. They’re crossing small streams and creeks all the time. They should be rebuilt and put back to the way they were, or improved.”

He said the amendments to the mining act go far beyond Ryerson.

This isn’t about an individual case,” he said. “It’s about the ability to longwall mine if you have to go under a stream or another waterway.”

Consol spokesman Brian Aiello referred all questions to Scarnati. State Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Carroll Township, who represents Washington and Greene counties, said she was still reviewing the bill and its ramifications.

The EHB judge’s order to stop mining within 100 feet of Kent Run caused Consolto briefly furlough about 200 coal miners in early February while workers moved a longwall mining machine to a new longwall panel.

Environmental groups have been at odds with Consol for years after the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said the company’s longwall mining near Ryerson damaged the Duke Lake dam, forcing state officials to drain the lake in July 2005. The state and Consol reached a $36 million settlement in 2013 to end litigation and the money was intended to be used to restore the lake, although continued movement near the area has scuttled that plan.

The money is now intended to be used to redesign the park, although environmental groups have said the destruction of waterways that feed Ryerson would make it impossible to create fishing ponds where Duke Lake once stood. A task force formed to formulate ideas on how to rebuild the park met Wednesday and will meet again in November to discuss potential plans.

Editor’s Note:

An earlier version of this story stated Scarnati did not return a phone call seeking comment. Crompton serves as counsel for the Senate Republicans and is a member of Scarnati’s staff.

Mike Jones has been a news reporter since 2005, covering crime, state and municipal government, education and energy. In addition to working at the Observer-Reporter, he also has spent time at the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail and Patch.com. He holds a journalism degree from West Virginia University.

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