When entomologist Andrew Liebhold moved to Greene County in the 1970s, he soon fell in love with Dunkard Creek, regularly kayaking the 37-mile waterway with his wife and two daughters while developing an appreciation for its stretches of scenic beauty.
Leibhold never dreamed that this placid tributary on the Monongahela River would become the center of a questionable partnership between a coal operator and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the state agency entrusted with managing natural resources.
Although mining is a way of life in the southwest corner of the state, Liebhold and others became alarmed when, in 2003, experts at West Virginia University’s Water Research Institute warned about an impending environmental disaster: The abandoned Shannopin mine was filling with acid drainage that threatened to flood into Dunkard Creek and eventually into the Mon River.
Such an event would likely foul the drinking water of 43,000 households and destroy a robust recreational fishery. To make matters worse, the DEP had failed to bond the bankrupt mine and was stuck with the high cost of pumping out the water.
“I remember being a little terrified about the rising mine pool,” said Liebhold, who is known as Sandy and is now president of the watchdog group called Friends of Dunkard Creek. “I live above a mine. They’re all over Greene County. The thought of a breakout is scary stuff."
Like others in the community, Liebhold was relieved when the state announced that a West Virginia-based mine operator — Dana Mining Company — was stepping in to help avert a catastrophic breakout on the Mon in exchange for access to coal.
The partnership was outlined in a consent order of agreement, and announced by then-Governor Ed Rendell in a special ceremony attended by Dana president James Laurita Jr. and others at the old Shannopin mine site in 2003.
According to the 2003 agreement, Dana would save the state the cost of pumping out the Shannopin mine pool and would treat the water at a plant they would build, in part, with $8 million in state loans and grants. Dana would create a non-profit affiliate called AMD Reclamation, Inc. (AMDRI) to handle the water treatment.
Nine years later, however, the original agreement has not been fulfilled, and Liebhold and others with a stake in the health of the creek say that Dana and related companies — with the DEP’s blessing — have used the agreement to their advantage at great cost to the environment.
PublicSource reviewed numerous documents from the DEP, the companies and the courts for this story.
Some of the DEP’s actions, according to Kurt Weist — a former DEP attorney who now is with the environmental advocacy group PennFuture (Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future) — are illegal because the agency failed to follow the normal permitting process, often keeping the public in the dark about Dana’s activities.
Leibhold said he feels as though Pennsylvanians “have been subjected to an elaborate bait and switch.”
“We were promised one thing in the original consent order and we’re getting something totally different,” he said.
“It makes you question whether DEP is more interested in helping out the mining industry than protecting our natural resources.”
Dana’s interest wasn’t entirely altruistic. Removing the water from the mine would give the company access to a seam of coal above the Shannopin mine. At least some of the coal was expected to fuel Longview Power Plant, a $2 billion facility slated for construction in Maidsville, W.Va. Dana also hoped to send the mine water to Longview to cool the plant's turbines.
“We were thrilled,” recalled the Greene County Watershed Alliance’s Terri Davin, who attended the partnership launch at the old Shannopin site.
“It was a big deal. We were convinced that this was going to be a positive thing…a solution to a potential disaster."
One condition made Davin, Liebhold, and others nervous, though: The DEP issued a permit allowing Dana to treat the Shannopin mine water to standards that met only minimal Clean Water Act requirements and discharge it into Dunkard Creek.
But because it was to be temporary — only until Longview was up and running — Liebhold wasn’t alarmed.
“It was something we could live with,” he said. “We figured it was the lesser of two evils, the other being a major blowout on the Mon.”
In April of 2005, however, the original plan began to go off-course when the DEP allowed Dana to remove water from the neighboring Humphrey mine — one that posed no threat of a blowout — so it could access more coal under the same permit that allowed the water removal from Shannopin.
Both Dana and AMDRI declined to comment for this story despite repeated requests.
DEP spokesman John Poister claims all requirements were met, but declined to comment further.
According to Weist, though, adding Humphrey as merely an informal revision to an existing permit was illegal.
The revision circumvented the normal process, which would have required a separate mining permit, and that would have included giving public notice, he said. “DEP did it without notifying their own water quality people. It simply wasn’t handled in the right manner."
No proper permit
The permitting gave Dana the advantage of treating water from two mines to minimal standards and then dumping it into Dunkard Creek, more than doubling the discharge from 3,500 gallons per minute to 7,500 gallons per minute, Weist said.
It also has been a break for Consol Energy, the owner of the Humphrey mine and one of the region’s largest energy producers, since it would have been Consol’s responsibility to pay for removing the water from the Humphrey mine.
Dana constructed pumps at two sites — Watkins Run and later at Calvin Run — to remove the water. This, too, was done without proper permitting, according to Liebhold, who said it was years before he even knew facilities were there. “It amounted to replumbing a permitted mine — Humphrey — but it was tacked onto a permit for dewatering the abandoned Shannopin mine,” he said.
His group and PennFuture took DEP to court, challenging the construction through the Environmental Hearing Board. That case was settled, but it would be four years before DEP would approve a proper permit for the operations, and the pumping of Humphrey seldom stopped in all that time.
While Dana was putting more mine water into Dunkard Creek, it was becoming clear that the discharges were no longer temporary, but, rather, the status quo. In 2007, Longview’s operator indicated it would not use the treated Shannopin and Humphrey water to cool its turbines because it was too high in total dissolved solids, or TDS, the salty particulate matter associated with mining activities.
Longview would instead get its water directly from the Monongahela River and treat it at a facility its owner GenPower planned to build near the mouth of Dunkard Creek. TDS would be removed from the river water using reverse osmosis.
The matter that was removed — known as reject — has to be disposed of, and in 2009, in an action Weist called inexplicable as well as a violation of state environmental laws, DEP allowed Dana to dump the reject along with other treated wastewater from West Virginia’s Longview power plant into the Shannopin mine, which meant it ultimately wound up in Dunkard Creek.
How was it justifiable to pump in more liquid waste, when the purpose of the original consent agreement was to get rid of Shannopin’s acid water, Weist asked. “And why is Pennsylvania accepting Longview’s reject? Why is it being piped the great distance to a Pennsylvania borehole, instead of a receiving stream right there in West Virginia?
DEP’s own concern
Weist wasn’t alone in raising an alarm. A 2009 report by DEP water pollution biologist Pamela Milevec showed that high TDS levels from the water discharged from the Shannopin mine were causing a loss of aquatic life on four miles of Dunkard Creek. Milavec blamed the discharges for creating “significant problems” on the creek, especially since the Humphrey water had increased the volume.
DEP sanitary engineer Dana Drake questioned the legality of injecting reverse osmosis “reject” into the underground workings of the mine.
She wrote in a March 2009 memo to the file: “It should not be a long-term disposal option.”
And yet, that is precisely what it has become, according to Weist and Liebhold, who say DEP has failed to uphold the public trust on Dunkard Creek.
More than a year ago, the Environmental Protection Agency began asking questions about DEP’s handling of activities on Dunkard Creek. Combined with pressure from Liebhold, Weist and others, DEP finally responded by advising AMDRI that it would have to meet a new set of demands.
Bill Plassio, chief of DEP’s California, Pa., district mining office, outlined an amended consent order that would require AMDRI to treat the Shannopin water to a higher standard and to agree to treat it in perpetuity, establishing a trust fund to cover the cost.
AMDRI was given up to 90 days to negotiate and sign an amended order. It never did.
Instead, it advised DEP that it is the state’s responsibility to perpetually treat the Shannopin mine pool. “If DEP intends to impose new water quality limits for discharges from the abandoned Shannopin mine,” wrote AMDRI Vice President Charlie Huguenard, “then DEP should step forward and identify how it intends to fund the enormous cost increases associated with such efforts.”
In 2012, the DEP continues to allow Dana/AMDRI to operate on a permit that expired in 2008.
Poister said nothing has happened in the past year. Weist called it symptomatic of the larger problem.
“They’ve got an extended permit that everyone acknowledges as inadequate, that isn’t designed to handle the situation as it is now,” said Weist. “They haven’t adjusted their permitting to the new reality. That is the sum and substance of the problem.”