For those of us who were either raised in Washington and Greene counties, or adopted this region as our home, coal mining has not only provided good paying jobs, it is a way of life for many. When a coal company decides to mine, none of us are surprised. Southwestern Pennsylvania is blessed to have an abundance of rich, natural resources – many of which power and heat our homes.
Sometimes when an industry is dominant in a specific region, our government institutions responsible for protecting our communities fail to enforce the laws and regulations on that industry. This makes sense. After all, private corporations employ residents and help to provide a local tax base. But just because an industry is powerful does not mean it is exempt from the law. When an industry violates the law, whether intentionally or unintentionally, we look to our government institutions to ensure that they are held accountable. Unfortunately, this has not happened for more than two decades.
In January, our organization issued a report that details the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s systemic failures for over two decades to enforce laws governing longwall mining operations. Longwall mining is a method of coal extraction where large panels of coal are removed without leaving surface support, resulting in widespread subsidence damage. In Pennsylvania, this type of mining is primarily only used in bituminous coalfields that are located in Washington and Greene counties. Most of us probably have a family member or friend whose home or property has been impacted by longwall mining.
Under Act 54, legislation that passed in 1994 that amended the Bituminous Mine Subsidence and Land Conservation Act (BMSLCA) of 1966 to allow damage to structures and water supplies, the DEP is required to publish a report every five years on mine subsidence effects; ensure that structures and water supplies impacted by mining subsidence are repaired or restored; and prevent damage to streams, wetlands, and aquifers from mining activities. Yet, repair and restoration requirements are not being met – facts documented by the DEP’s own record-keeping.
When DEP issues its report every five years, its findings repeatedly cite that repairs to subsidence-damaged homes and water supplies are rare. Furthermore, the department’s reports also detail that collateral damage from longwall mining activities is causing widespread pollution to surface waters and groundwater resources.
All one needs to do is examine DEP’s own data. Specifically, out of the 1,427 structures that have been damaged, 94% were due to longwall mining. There have been 1,726 water supplies damaged and 67% were due to longwall mining. Out of the 362 incidents of stream damage and pollution that has occurred, 99% were due to longwall mining. And finally, less than 10% of all damages to structures and water supplies are being repaired.
Simply put, the DEP has failed to do its job. It is unacceptable that a government institution – responsible for keeping the communities, lands, and water sources throughout Pennsylvania safe – has forsaken the residents of Washington and Greene counties.
I want to be clear: our organization is not attacking the coal industry or any specific coal companies. Nor are we requesting that new laws or regulations be implemented. Rather, our organization is advocating for the DEP to fulfill its obligation and enforce the current laws and regulations, but we cannot do it alone. We need every resident in Washington and Greene counties to use their voice and urge the DEP to enforce current regulations on longwall mining operations, especially the residents who have dealt with longwall mining over the past 25 years.
The DEP is accepting public comments on its website until Friday, April 9. The future health and safety of our communities, lands, and local water sources must be protected.
If we cannot count on our government institutions, like the DEP, to work in the best interest of citizens, who can we count on?
Aimee Erickson is the executive director of the Citizens Coal Council, a nonprofit organization based in Washington County. To learn more about the organization visit www.citizenscoalcouncil.org/.