Subsidence Still Impacts Streams, [PA] DEP Report Says

Washington PA Observer-Reporter
2 January 2015
By Bob Niedbala, Staff Writer

WAYNESBURG – About 39 miles of stream in Pennsylvania were impacted by subsidence caused by underground coal mining during a five-year period ending in August 2013, according to a report released Tuesday by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Information on streams affected by mining is included in a lengthy report prepared for DEP by the University of Pittsburgh on the impacts of underground mine subsidence on surface structures, water supplies and streams.

The report is the fourth to be completed under Act 54 legislation passed in 1994, which revised the law on subsidence damage and required reports, or assessments, to be done every five years on subsidence impacts. The fourth assessment period covered August 2008 through August 2013.

“This report provides vital information about the significance of bituminous mining on Pennsylvania’s landscape,” said John Stefanko, DEP deputy secretary. “We will use this information to evaluate the effectiveness of our mining program and consider ways to enhance the program in the future,” he said.

During the fourth assessment period, 31,343 acres of land were undermined, an 18 percent reduction from the previous assessment period. The report attributed the decrease in undermined acreage to reduced coal demand and the extension of the Bailey Mine into West Virginia.

During the period, 40 percent of the undermined land was in Greene County, 19 percent in Washington County and the remaining 39 percent spread throughout Armstrong, Beaver, Cambria, Clearfield, Elk, Indiana, Jefferson and Somerset counties.

Of the 46 mines in operation during the period, seven were highly efficient longwall mining operations. Five of the longwall mines operate in Greene County and two in Washington County. One of the longwall mines in Washington County, Mine 84, closed during the period.

The report considered impacts to land and buildings, water supplies and streams. A total of 1,250 incidents involving subsidence were reported during the fourth assessment period, about the same number as in the previous period.

Under its contract with DEP, the university said a main focus in the fourth assessment was to report the effects of mine subsidence on streams, a concern to both the industry and citizens.

During the fourth assessment period, 96 miles of streams were undermined. Of that, 51 miles were undermined by longwall mines in Greene and Washington counties.

“Nearly all reported stream impacts resulted from subsidence associated with longwall mining,” the report said. The impacts included pooling and the loss of stream flow.

Because of a change by DEP in the way it tracks stream impacts, the report said only nine stream investigations were begun during the fourth assessment period. Four were resolved by the end of the period. For many of the investigations, the report said stream flow data submitted by the coal operators was inadequate to assess whether a stream recovered.

Fourteen final stream recovery reports also were filed by coal operators with DEP during the period.

Nine streams were released from further monitoring, three remained under review and two had not recovered, requiring the operator to conduct “compensatory mitigation,” which involves restoration or enhancements to another stream in the same or a nearby watershed.

The limited biology data available for the report on the affected streams indicated adverse impacts to the streams’ aquatic life, measured by Total Biological Scores, and water quality, the report said.

“On a positive note, TBS increased over time at sites impacted by flow loss in the fourth assessment period, albeit slowly,” the report said. It also noted mitigation involving “gate cutting,” the restoration of the stream channel by removing areas that result in pooling, appears to be successful in restoring streams to pre-mining conditions.

The report included a follow up on the third assessment period, during which 55 stream investigations were initiated and 51 resolved. Eight of those streams listed as resolved, however, were found to be “not recoverable,” the report said.

Of the 1,250 incidences of subsidence reported during the period, 389 involved buildings and structures. All but 59 were resolved during the period. DEP determined that for 238 of those cases damage was caused by mining and as a result the mining company was deemed liable, the report said.

The report cited 855 incidents involving impacts to wells, springs and ponds. By the end of the reporting period, 654 cases were resolved. Of the resolved cases, 57 percent were determined by DEP to result from mining and the mine operator was held responsible.

The report also notes 25 percent of the incidents involving water supplies for which a company was determined to be liable were outside the “rebuttable presumption zone,” the area above the mine in which the state assumes any impacts are caused by mining.

The report also for the first time considered mining impacts on groundwater. It noted, however, that additional monitoring and analysis must be done to understand more fully the impact of mining on groundwater supplies.

In regard to wetlands, the report found DEP had been able to identify more than double the amount of pre-mining wetland acreage because of improved techniques since the last assessment. Continued study is required to assess wetland mitigation sites to make sure they reach their proposed functionality, it said.

The report also found DEP had increased the amount and types of data required to make permit decisions related to mining and, as a result of a new technical guidance document, has improved the way it quantifies and interprets impacts to surface waters.

The report notes, however, DEP’s data management and storage capabilities must be enhanced and standardized to efficiently enforce the requirements of Act 54 and its implementing regulations.

Patrick Grenter, executive director of the Center for Coalfield Justice, said he had not yet had time to read the entire report. “From what I’ve seen, the report clearly shows Act 54 is not in any way protecting the environment and our most precious resource, water,” he said.

Where longwall mining is conducted, there remains a “significant and unavoidable” threat to streams, he said. It’s hard to believe “they continue to allow these companies to systematically destroy our ecosystem.”

DEP spokeswoman Lisa Kasianowitz said the report helps the agency improve its mining program and permitting process. If a coal operator must mitigate a specific subsidence event, “this helps us determine the best method,” she said.

It also is a tool with which the department can review its program and consider what might need to be changed, she said.

The Act 54 report can be viewed on DEP’s website at Under keyword, type Act 54