Only 57 percent of surface coal mine permits in Kentucky were free of violations during oversight inspections in the most recent evaluation, a continued low rate of industry compliance on environmental and reclamation rules.
The industry’s compliance rate has varied over the last 30 years, from 60 percent in 1990 to a high of 87 percent in 2007 and 2008, but has dropped the last several years in a row, according to evaluations by the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, commonly called OSM.
The rate has topped 70 percent only twice in the last decade.
The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet said one factor in the relatively low number of mines without observed violations was a lot of bad weather during the evaluation period, which created challenges to doing reclamation work. The evaluation covered from July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018.
The cabinet also noted that there are many non-producing mines because of a long-lasting downturn in the coal market, leaving companies with less money to fix violations.
Tyler White, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said he agreed with the cabinet’s assessment about wet weather and challenging market conditions.
Tom FitzGerald, executive director of the Kentucky Resources Council, said it’s hard to determine what factors account for the higher percentage of sites with violations, but that it could result from the high number of idled mines.
Tight market conditions often cause operators to defer proper maintenance of mine sites, FitzGerald said.
“In any event, the continued slide in the number of sites that are not in compliance, and the number of OSM-observed violations, is a troubling trend,” FitzGerald said.
Kentucky’s coal industry slumped badly beginning in 2012 because of a variety of factors, including competition from natural gas for power-plant customers, Obama Administration efforts to toughen environmental rules and increasing use of renewable energy.
Donald Trump pledged in his 2016 campaign to revitalize the coal industry, and as president he has rolled back environmental rules in an effort to do that. However, there has been no significant recovery in Kentucky.
State coal production totaled 109 million tons in 2011, with 68 million tons from Eastern Kentucky and 41 million in the western coalfield, according to the Energy and Environment Cabinet. The statewide figure dropped to 42.7 million tons in 2016; 41.7 million tons in 2017; and 39.7 million tons in 2018.
The state averaged 18,069 coal jobs for the year in 2011, a figure that dropped to 6,442 for 2018. The state first calculated the 2018 figure at 6,409 but received additional information after that.
When there are a higher number of violations at mined sites or violations go unabated for longer periods, it means increased potential for environmental problems.
In approving the surface-mining law, Congress understood that “limiting the time between initial disturbance of the land and establishment of vegetation on reclaimed areas was essential to proper reclamation and reducing adverse off-site impacts from erosion, sedimentation and changes in stream chemistry due to leaching of acid-forming or toxic elements and metals,” FitzGerald said.
The state of Kentucky enforces federal surface-mining rules under the oversight of OSM.
The federal agency does an annual assessment of work by the Kentucky Department for Natural Resources to apply the rules, which govern how coal companies must conduct surface mining and reclaim mined sites.
The 2017-2018 review by the federal agency was released recently.
Kentucky regulators do the vast majority of mine inspections, but OSMRE does what it calls comprehensive random inspections.
Those were the reviews in the 2017-2018 report that identified violations such as erosion, landslides and allowing polluted water to escape into streams on more than 40 percent of the permits inspected. Those inspections did not cover every permitted site in Kentucky.
On other fronts, OSMRE said Kentucky continues to uphold the intent of the federal law and cited a number of state accomplishments, including working with the coal industry to eliminate more than 224,00 feet of open, idle highwall in Eastern Kentucky since April 2016.
A highwall is a sheer area — a cliff — created when coal companies dig into a hill to uncover coal seams.
They’re supposed to be eliminated after mining by compacting dirt and rock on the hill to re-create a slope that can be planted with vegetation to help reduce erosion.
The federal report also mentioned the state’s continued use of a pilot program to try to boost economic development on or adjacent to abandoned mine sites.
The state received a total of $55 million for the program in the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years, the report said.
Another accomplishment was that the state completed 100 percent of the required inspections during the evaluation period.
The state met the required number of inspections on only 83 percent of the permits from 2009 through 2011 after a wave of employee retirements, but has done well on finishing the required number of inspections in recent years.
State inspectors did a total of 16,803 complete or partial inspections on 1,471 mining permits in 2017-18, according to the OSMRE report.
The facilities covered in the permits include active and inactive mine sites, roads, preparation plants and refuse disposal sites. The state had more than twice that many “inspectable units” in 1990, reflecting the contraction in the industry since then.
In the 2017-18 evaluation period, the state had one field inspector for every 25 inspectable units. The agreement between the state and OSM calls for a 1-to-24 ratio.
The number of permits issued in the state also reflects the downward trend for coal. The state issued 77 new permits in the 2011-2012 evaluation period, compared to 23 in the year covered in the latest report.
That was up from 17 the year before, however.
The state issued non-compliance notices to permit holders in 2017-18 that cited 1,341 violations of environmental and reclamation standards.
The most-cited violations related to water-quality monitoring and proper maintenance of ponds designed to keep sediment out of streams around mines, according to the OSMRE report.
Revelation Energy LLC received 134 notices of non-compliance listing 259 violations of performance standards. That was the most for any coal company.
Next was Premier Elkhorn, with 32 notices citing 74 violations, and Kentucky Fuel Corporation with 23 non-compliances and 44 total violations.
Revelation Energy had more than 330,000 acres under permit, far more than other companies on the non-compliance list.