General permit for coal falls short, June 18 hearing set

A public hearing will take place on June 18 to receive comments on proposed drafts of the state’s General Permit for Coal Mining.

The general permit sets limits on what pollutants can be discharged from coal mining operations into the state’s waterways. The law requires that it be updated and renewed every five years. The current general permit expires on July 31.

This year, state officials are proposing separate permit conditions for eastern Kentucky and western Kentucky.

Though an improvement over the existing general permit, the proposal falls short of what is needed to protect public health and the environment, KFTC members say. And it fails to take positive steps to prevent additional pollution to streams already heavily damaged by coal mining.

According to the state’s own reports, a majority of the streams in eastern Kentucky are listed as “impaired” as a result of coal mining pollution.

Since Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, Kentucky officials have failed to set any Total Maximum Daily Load limits for any stream designated as polluted by coal mining operations in eastern Kentucky. TMDLs are “a calculation of the maximum amount of a pollutant that a waterbody can receive and still safely meet water quality standards,” according to the U.S. EPA.

The Kentucky Division of Water only reduces the amount of pollution going into streams when TMDLs have been developed for that stream, not if the steam has been identified as being impaired with pollution from coal mining.

So severely degraded streams can continue to get more pollution dumped into them because the state refuses to create TMDLs for streams impaired by mining pollution.

State officials also did not propose a stream standard for conductivity, a general measure of a stream’s health. Scientific data specific to the Appalachian region show that life in a stream starts to diminish when conductivity rises above 300 micro-Siemens (μS/cm) and that most aquatic life cannot exist when levels rise above 500 μS/cm.

Many streams below coal mining operations already exceed those levels.

The proposed permit adds for the first time limits on selenium, but uses the weak standard recently adopted by state officials that is currently under legislative review and court challenge (see related story).

“They are keeping an eye on selenium more than they have been, but still no hard limits, which we really, really need,” said Mary Love, co-chair of KFTC’s Land Reform Committee. “They are using the selenium standards the EPA approved. If they look for fish and can’t find any, they go to the water column. We think the initial testing ought to be the water column and not the fish.”

KFTC members also point out that the general permit for coal mining should not even be used. It assumes a “one size fits all” approach that does not consider individual stream conditions and the potential impacts of the pollution on that specific stream and its uses.

Such considerations are usually part of an individual permit. But state officials want to make the general permit the standard and issue fewer individual permits, Love explained.

“The reason they are doing this is because they don’t have the personnel to deal with a bunch of individual permits. The staff keeps getting cut and cut and cut,” Love said. “The coal companies are going to be required to do more testing, and be more vigilant in their testing, but the standards are still too lenient.”

The June 18 hearing will take place at 6 p.m. in Room 301D of the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection at 300 Fair Oaks Lane in Frankfort. The first 90 minutes is for accepting comments about the draft permit for eastern Kentucky, and the second 90 minutes is for the western Kentucky draft permit.

Written comments will also be accepted and may be mailed to the Division of Water at 200 Fair Oaks Lane, Frankfort, Kentucky 40601 or emailed to DOWPublicNotice@ky.gov. The deadline for written comments is July 1.

Draft General Permit – Eastern Kentucky
Draft General Permit – Western Kentucky

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