Residents worry coal mine will undo clean water efforts

Published: Feb. 24, 2018 at 3:25 PM EST
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As years of work to cleanse southeastern Ohio’s Sunday Creek of acid mine drainage from old coal mines start to produce cleaner water and more fish species, a new coal mine is proposed to open in the region.

The prospect of a new mine opening while work is underway to clean up years of pollution left from old mines has outraged some Athens County residents.

Oxford Mining Co. plans to operate a surface mine on 299 acres in Trimble Township near Glouster. The company says in its permit applications that the Johnson Run mine is expected to operate for five years and employ about 100 workers.

Permits are pending before the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Mineral Resources Management.

Mining wastewater would be discharged into Johnson Run, which connects to Sunday Creek. Johnson Run and three other streams will be “impacted’ by the mining work, as well as three wetlands, the company says in one of its permit applications.

The Appalachian Ohio nonprofit organization Rural Action has been working for 20 years to clean up the Sunday Creek and Monday Creek watersheds, and in partnership with federal, state and local agencies, universities and other nonprofit groups has spent about $9 million to date on the efforts, said Michelle Shively, Rural Action’s Sunday Creek Watershed coordinator.

Watersheds, or drainage basins, are land areas that collect and drain water to creeks, streams and rivers. The restoration work in the southeastern Ohio watersheds has included the addition of treatment systems that neutralize the highly acidic, orange-colored, rotten-egg-smelling water spilling from abandoned mines and make it clean enough to support life.

Of the $9 million, Shively said, more than $2.6 million has been spent cleaning up the Sunday Creek watershed, most of it focused on the creek’s west branch. The results include significantly cleaner water and more aquatic life. The west branch has transformed from having no fish at all to now hosting 17 species, she said.

“We hope that the Ohio EPA and Oxford Mining Co. will take into account the tremendous investment and resulting water quality improvements that have occurred in the Sunday Creek watershed and take the necessary precautions to not endanger the biological communities and quality habitat downstream from this proposed mining operation, and address our questions concerning the direct impacts to the mining area and Johnson Run,” Shively told state officials at a public hearing Feb. 15.

More than 100 people who live in Athens County and the surrounding area, the majority opposed to the project, attended the hearing at Burr Oak Lodge and Conference Center near Glouster.

Resident Loraine McCosker said volunteers have devoted thousands of hours over the years to cleaning up Sunday Creek. The prospect of a new mine undoing all that hard work is “quite alarming,” she said.

“Coal is not our future,” said resident Andrea Reik. “Jobs are important, but water is precious. Once it’s contaminated, sometimes it can’t be remediated.

“Why would we go backward?” Reik asked. “It makes no sense. It’s crazy, and we need to continue saying no. We need to go forward ... We are taxpayers. Why should we undo what we have spent?”

But resident Jeff McLean, who said he supported his family for 30 years mining coal, said he is confident that the mine can operate cleanly, thanks to “stringent” water-sampling requirements and other regulatory rules the state would impose on the company in issuing permits.

The company says in a permit application that its use of good management and mitigation practices at the Johnson Run mine will result in “only minimal adverse impacts on the environment.”

Coshocton-based Oxford Mining and Buckingham Coal Co., which operates an underground coal mine in Glouster not far from Oxford’s proposed surface mine, both are owned by Colorado-based Westmoreland Coal Co. Oxford Mining did not return a voicemail and an email from The Dispatch seeking further comment.

A total of 14 mining companies produced coal at 28 surface mines and eight underground mines statewide in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2017. Ohio mining is concentrated in 16 counties in the eastern third of the state, according to the Division of Mineral Resources Management.