Environment State OEPA holds third public hearing to discuss Johnson Run wastewater discharge permit By Alejandro Figueroa Posted on October 9, 2019 12 min read 0 0 268 Community members flash signs in solidarity against OPEA's proposed water discharge permit. Photo by Alejandro Figueroa The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) held its third public hearing Monday in Trimble Township to accept comments on a draft wastewater discharge permit for the Johnson Run Mine in Athens County. The permit proposes to mine approximately 36 acres of land via surface mining and 253 acres by auger — a method of mining by drilling into coal seams — according to a fact sheet provided by OEPA. If approved, the wastewater discharge permit would allow CCU Coal and Constructions LLC, a coal mining company, to release treated wastewater from coal mining operations into Johnson Run and Sunday Creek, near County Road 68 — also known as Johnson Run Road — in Trimble Township. Westmoreland Coal Company — now called CCU Coal and Construction LLC — was the original applicant of the July 2016 permit. A public meeting on a draft permit was held in February 2018, followed by a public information session in May 2018, to inform the public of steps taken by OEPA to address concerns over the proposed wastewater discharge permit. Following this, Westmoreland Coal Company was purchased by CCU Coal and Constructions LLC after Westmoreland filed for bankruptcy, and a resubmitted permit was filed earlier this year under new company ownership. The permit’s effect on the water quality of the area has generated concern among community members and local environmental advocacy groups. Concerns mentioned during the meeting included: claims from environmental advocacy groups that the OEPA omitted information collected by its scientists on the quality of the water in the Johnson Run Mine; favoring the mining company; and ignoring the health of species endemic to the mine and surrounding water tributaries. Monday’s meeting focused specifically on the already-submitted application permit by CCU to discharge wastewater from its mining operations and all runoff from the site into a treatment pond and accept public comments. Each mine would feature one pit and one treatment pond for a total of five mining pits and treatment ponds. Each treatment pond would discharge to Johnson Run and Sunday Creek watershed, according to OEPA officials. OEPA said no significant change has been made to the resubmitted permit from when it was originally filed in July 2016 under Westmoreland Coal Company. During the meeting, Erin Sherer, an environmental engineer from the OEPA, discussed proposed permit changes, including flooding — one of the most cited concerns by community members and environmental protection groups alike. OEPA determined “certain deficiencies” — including flooding — in the original wastewater discharge permit were made clear after the first public hearing. The agency reevaluated parts of the plan in order to address the original concerns heard through the last meeting, Sherer said. “We worked hard with our Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) colleagues and the company to understand the hydrology in the area and how that water was going to be treated properly,” Sherer said. In order to address flooding in the area, OPEA and ODNR visited the site during a flood event and concluded that wastewater treatment pond designs needed a reevaluation to ensure that the water treatment system works in the event of flooding, Sherer said. Despite reassurances made by OPEA and ODNR officials that measures have been taken to protect watershed tributaries, members opposing the project cited the ability of the mining company to mitigate the impact it will have on the water quality of the mining area. This is due to the company’s previous history of failing to follow up with mining procedures and reclaiming excavated land to its original contour, according to the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act — a law that sets minimum requirements for all coal surface mining on federal and state lands. “Westmoreland’s bankruptcy is just one in a string of bankruptcies across the country,” said Zachary Schultheis, a farmer from Perry County. “Companies engage in a shell game cycle — mine, declare bankruptcy and sell — which allows them to avoid their responsibilities to the public, miners, regulators and our environment.” CCU recently announced its plans to cut 205 jobs, more than half its workforce. The job cuts were primarily due to American Electric Power’s decision to close one of its power plants in Conesville, a village located in Coshocton County, The Columbus Dispatch reported. Members opposing the mine said the mining company will provide very little to Athens County and destroy millions in investments on water reclamation efforts. Also, members claimed OEPA would violate federal and state law in reference to the anti-degradation policy, citing water species of Johnson Run, such as cold-water fish and aquatic insects like mayflies and stoneflies. Anti-degradation policy lists steps needed for minimum conditions to be met included in a State’s water quality standards, meaning no pollutant should be discharged if it will cause water quality standards to drop. OEPA staff identified the presence of coldwater and key aquatic insects that indicate high-quality streams and one coldwater fish species in their field testing of Johnson Run in 2017. OEPA is trying to avoid required protections by lowering the water quality in Johnson Run and subsequently disregarding federal and state anti-degradation policy, said Roxanne Groff, a member of the Athens County Fracking Action Network. “There is clear evidence within the record that the information leading to the conclusion of lowering the water quality of Johnson Run and its existing use must have been manipulated with an abusive discretion by the administration,” Groff said. “That is shame on the OEPA, and there must be a follow-up meeting to have transparency in the OEPA decision making process.” Soon after, community members gave on-the-record testimonies in opposition to the project and highlighted various other concerns in regards to Johnson Run and its surrounding tributaries. Concerns included water quality and pollution concerns, the marketability of coal and how the company will be held accountable if it fails to comply with proposed permit procedures to name a few. In regards to what actions will be taken after the public meeting, the director of the OEPA will issue or deny a permit after reviewing public comments and recommendations from technical staff. There is no set date yet for such revisions, according to OPEA officials. If a permit is issued, the federal Environmental Protection Agency will review and state its intentions to approve or disapprove the final permit. OPEA will announce a final decision soon thereafter. OPEA will accept written comments on the Johnson Run wastewater discharge permit application through Oct. 14. Anyone may submit comments or request to be on the mailing list for information. To comment or receive information on the permit application, email [email protected] or [email protected]epa.ohio.gov.