Far fewer stream areas in Eastern Kentucky would be buried by surface mining under new guidelines the state has adopted.
Under the guidelines, coal companies would put more excess rock and dirt back on the mined area rather than putting it in nearby hollows, which covers up stream areas.
For the last few years, the impact on stream areas had been a key source of growing criticism of surface mining in Appalachia.
The new guidelines represent a landmark change that will reduce the impact of mining on the environment, said Tom FitzGerald, executive director of the Kentucky Resources Council.
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"This is probably the single most important change in mining practices in many years," FitzGerald said.
The state Energy and Environment Cabinet announced the new guidelines Thursday. The Department for Natural Resources is hiring three people to perform the enhanced review of surface-mining permit applications it will require, according to a news release.
When coal companies blast away the tops or sides of slopes in Eastern Kentucky to uncover coal, not all that material — called spoil — can be put back on the mined area. That's because the spoil swells.
Companies dump the excess spoil into what are called hollow fills or valley fills near the mined area.
Environmental groups have long complained that regulators did not make coal companies put enough rock and dirt back on the mined areas. That meant mining created more and larger fills than necessary, covering more stream areas, critics have argued.
The new state guidelines are in the form of an engineering advisory to coal companies on how to handle spoil while reclaiming a mined area.
Bob Zik, vice-president of operations for TECO Coal, said the new spoil-handling guidelines will mean added costs for the coal industry. The industry helped work out the changes and supports them, however, he said.
It is better to cooperate in resolving issues than going to court and being adversarial, Zik said.
"Nothing gets accomplished if everyone doesn't give a little," said Zik, who played a role in working out the guidelines.
The advisory calls for companies to look for areas such as abandoned mines or old mine cuts near the new mine where they could place spoil, rather than putting it into a new fill, and also to put more spoil back on the area being mined.
Coal companies are supposed to compact spoil back on the mined site to re-create the approximate original contour of the mountain.
However, the requirement to restore the approximate elevation of the mountain hasn't been properly enforced, FitzGerald said.
That means ridges are sometimes far shorter after mining than before. FitzGerald said the new reclamation advisory corrects that.
The use of the guidelines will result in far fewer fills being created, and the ones companies do create would be smaller, he said.
The advisory also will mean quicker reclamation, and could lead to reclamation of some areas that were mined and abandoned before Congress adopted new mining rules in 1977, FitzGerald said.
The state is encouraging coal companies to use the new guidelines, but it's not mandatory. However, federal agencies that have authority over some aspects of permit applications are requiring the use of the new practices, so as a practical matter, coal companies will use them, FitzGerald said.
The protocol creates a standard that could help coal companies avoid costly litigation, FitzGerald said.
If negotiators hadn't worked out the new guidelines, the Kentucky Resources Council would have sued regulators, alleging that they had failed to properly enforce reclamation rules, FitzGerald said.
Representatives from the U.S. Office of Surface Mining; the Kentucky Department for Natural Resources, which enforces federal mining rules; the Army Corps of Engineers; the Kentucky Resources Council; and the coal industry worked out the advisory over the last year.
The state enforces federal mining rules. Joe Blackburn, head of the OSM office covering Kentucky, said the reclamation advisory would not have been possible without the involvement of Carl Campbell, commissioner of the state Department of Natural Resources.
"It serves as an outstanding example of what can be achieved when state and federal regulatory agencies work together with environmental advocacy groups and the mining industry," he said in a statement.