Coal mining expected to restart soon near city

An environmental group has made its pitch to keep Black Diamond from blasting back to its coal mining roots next month. Whether it worked remains to be seen.

The Pacific Coal Company notified residents within a half mile of the John Henry Mine with letters on April 2 saying the company would resume mining of pits 1 and 2 of the mine, which hasn’t produced coal since 1999. A blasting notice informed residents of Pacific Coal’s intention to detonate explosives on approximately 160 acres of land during the mining operation. The notice covers blasting up until June 30, 2015. The company plans to mine 740,000 tons over a six year period, followed by a one-year period of “reclamation-only actions.” The company has a contract to sell coal to cement plants in Seattle and Richmond, British Columbia.

The John Henry No. 1 mine is located west of Lake 12, between Black Diamond-Ravensdale Road and Green River Gorge Road. It first opened in 1985 and is approximately 480 acres. It was first permitted in 1986 and was renewed in five-year increments even though coal was not being produced. The mining area is located in three sub-watersheds: Ginder Lake, Mud Lake and Lake No. 12. The mine shut down when the price for coal dropped, but Dave Morris, President of Pacific Coast Coal, said market conditions have improved.

The company continued applying for permits even though coal was not being produced. The company started reclamation in 2010 and then applied for a new permit one year later. According to Reporter archives, the company first attempted to reopen the mine in 2007, when the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement ordered the company to either resume mining production or move into final reclamation. The office also denied its permit request in 2010, stating “the company has not shown it has buyers for its coal, and it has not sufficiently described the impacts of its request.”

Homeowners were notified of their right to request a pre-blast survey, which would determine the condition of the dwelling and any pre-blasting damage and other physical factors that could reasonably be affected by the blasting.

Morris said the company has received survey requests from between 15-20 residents.

The OSMRE was originally accepting written comments about its Environmental Assessment from March 18 to April 29, but extended the deadline to May 13. Chris Holmes, spokesman for the OSMRE, said asking for public comment was “somewhat of an extraordinary move.” He said they extended the deadline because of heavy interest in the project.

“The mine has a history and we are aware of that history, so we decided to go to public comment,” Holmes said.

Collin Jergens, a spokesman for the environmental group Fuse, said more than 1,400 people sent a comment letter to the OSME through the Fuse website. He said most supported holding a public hearing and opposed restarting the mine, which was written in the letter’s template. Jergens said other environmental groups have joined in support, with more than 3,000 comments submitted.

One written concern came from Great Maple Valley Unincorporated Area Council, that said, among other things, in a seven page letter to OSMRE that there are several concerns about assumptions and oversights in data, incomplete information, inaccurate hydrological information and inadequate environmental assessments that “could have major effects on public health and safety, as well as our natural environment.”

The letter noted concern that mining activities will adversely affect downstream drainages in the Lake Sawyer watershed, which was annexed into city limits in 1998 and is subject to urban zoning of greater density that will directly affect surface water runoff. It added that the mining will impact YarrowBay’s development plan to build 4,800 residences in the Villages. The council asked that the revision and renewal permit be denied and that reclamation be required “promptly.”

“…No further delays, as the public has waited long enough,” the Council’s letter stated. “It is not prudent to continue to delay reclamation. Continued delays may result in further loss of water quality and environment quality to our constituents and the citizens of the City of Black Diamond.”

Jergens said Fuse supporters in Black Diamond were concerned about increases in truck traffic, as well as water and air pollution. Jergens also claims that the company is trying to use an outdated Environmental Impact Statement from 1986 to avoid complying with stronger clean air and clean water protections.

“I think it’s naive to say nothing has changed since 1986,” he said. “We’ve learned a lot more about coal mining in that time.”

Morris said there were 23 days of public hearings before a hearing examiner in the early 80s when the area was rezoned from forestry to mining.

“Nothing has changed since then,” Morris said. “Most in the Fuse group probably weren’t even born then.”

Morris called the environmental impact statement allegations lies and told The Reporter that, “coal is a dirty word so environmental groups use that to raise money. This Fuse group seems to be doing that.”

OSMRE found that the environmental impacts were adequately analyzed during the permit application from 1986. The assessment stated that the impacts of previous mining at John Henry Mine No. 1 have been “insignificant with respect to climate and it is expected that proposed mining will have insignificant impacts to climate.”

“In 1986 climate change was not an issue,” the assessment stated. “The local climate has not changed perceptively since 1986.”

Black Diamond started as a coal mining company town in the 1880s. According to the OSME’s environmental assessment, at peak production, the mine employed 75 people and was the major employer in the greater Black Diamond area. The proposed mining is expected to require an average of about 30 employees per day for seven years.

“Overall, the operation has little impact on the City of Black Diamond and its residents and very little socioeconomic impact in general,” the assessment stated.

OSMRE was not required to take public comment and does not need to hold a public hearings on the matter. Holmes said it would take time to look through the actual comments before a decision would be made over whether a public hearing is needed.

“Before we’ve finished the environmental assessment, asking for a public hearing is not appropriate; it’s not the right order of the process,” Holmes said.

Holmes said comments on scientific engineering evidence are much more crucial than the number of comments actually received.

“It’s not a popularity contest,” Holmes said. “That’s not how the law is written.”

According to Pacific Coal’s notices, blasting will occur between 10 a.m.-4 p.m., unless emergencies force blasting to alternate times. According to the notices, a series of long horn signals will be blown five minutes before blasting and a series of short horn signals one minute before. Continuous horn signal when all clear.

In the past, full production would have meant an average of 33 coal trucks leaving the mean each day. The proposed action is about 10 per day, five days per week.

Pacific Coal’s current proposal involves a much lower annual coal production rate than in the past and will avoid mining through the large Mud Lake wetland. No mining will be done within the Black Diamond city limits.

“It’s a tiny mine,” Morris said. “Some mines produce 60 or 70 million tons a year. There’s 80,000-90,000 for this one.”

The State Department of Ecology fined the company $2,000 in 2006 for exceeding its monthly phosphorus discharge levels into nearby waterways. Morris said  that issue was caused by failed sewer systems in Black Diamond and that the coal doesn’t impact the phosphorus levels. He said Pacific Coal has all of the necessary air quality, water discharge and grading permits.

The Fuse press release called the John Henry mine a “110-year-old coal pit,” though no citation for that timeframe was provided to The Reporter before press deadline Tuesday. Morris and Bill Kombol, president of Palmer Coking Coal Co., which owns the land, said they had no idea where Fuses’ version of the history came from. Kombol provided archived newspaper clips of the area being turned into a mine from forested land in the mid-1980s.

George McPherson, who lives on Lake Sawyer, has approached the Black Diamond City Council about some of his concerns about the mine reopening, which include runoff into streams that could impact water quality, as well as a possible unwanted effect on traffic and area property values. He is among those who believe the company is just trying to get out of reclamation, or cleaning up, the property from the last time it was mined.

“They have been asked to do reclamation, but have always managed to work their way out of it,” he said. “They say they are going to mine coal. They might, but it also might be another attempt to avoid reclamation of the property.”

Black Diamond resident Mira Hoke said she, and others she’s spoken to in the community, feel the mining and blasting won’t actually happen since there is no market for coal and that she’s heard the talk before with no resulting action.

“You just have to wonder if it’s more talk than anything else,” she said.

Kombol said the mining will happen.

“They’re not going through all this process to fool people,” Kombol said. “They’re doing it to mine coal and reclaim the land.”

Morris mirrored Kombol, calling the rumor “an absolute lie.”

“They are either lying or ignorant,” he said. “…Our objective is to mine the remaining 500,000 tons of clean coal and that’s a five or six year process. As we mine, the reclamation cost is reduced.”

Morris said he plans to begin production as soon as OSMRE issues the permit.


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