PITTSBURGH — A coal company has petitioned state environmental officials in an effort to downgrade a "High Quality Warmwater Fishery" known for its tackle-busting smallmouth bass so it can mine the area with fewer constraints.
It is the latest in a round of mining permit applications the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is now considering, as coal operators scramble to meet rising global energy demands with Pennsylvania's top-grade coal reserves.
"This is a relatively new tactic, where the coal companies are sticking their toe in the water and saying, 'If we can get this stream downgraded, then we can get restrictions removed in other places, too,'" said Bev Braverman, executive director of the Mountain Watershed Association.
"It's another way they're working the system to satisfy the world's energy addiction."
Baltimore-based Foundation Coal LP says the "high quality" designation given South Fork of Ten Mile Creek on the Monongahela River 30 years ago is outmoded because the stream is no longer used as a public water supply.
The 2005 Bassmaster Classic was held on the Monongahela River, and local B.A.S.S. Federation Nation clubs hold tournaments near the mouth of Ten Mile Creek, which is fed by the South Fork tributary.
"If high-quality status applied in the 1970s, it applies now," said John Arway, environmental director of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. Arway's agency recently sampled two dozen different species of fish in South Fork, including smallmouth bass, rock bass, sauger and freshwater drum.
Foundation spokesman Rick Nida said not getting the downgrade would jeopardize the company's plans, or make mining on South Fork more costly.
Consol Energy is seeking a similar downgrade of a South Fork tributary (Grinnage Run) where it wants to expand a deep mine. And in neighboring Fayette County, Amerikohl Mining Inc. has proposed a surface mine and other facilities on 280 acres bracketed by "high quality" coldwater fisheries on the Youghiogheny River, which feeds the Monongahela.
The Youghiogheny recently was named Pennsylvania's 2008 River of the Year, in tribute to its recovery from decades of abandoned mine drainage. While the river supports smallmouth bass, trophy trout and other species, it still is regarded as fragile.
"It's ridiculous DEP would even consider a mine at a time when everyone is coming together to celebrate the river," said Youghiogheny Riverkeeper Krissie Kasserman, who is part of the national Waterkeeper Alliance.
Besides erosion, sedimentation and mine drainage, concerns include possible impacts to rare plants and animals, and noise from blasting near Ohiopyle State Park and the Great Allegheny Passage, a popular bike route — and a federally designated National Scenic Trail — that runs from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Md.
"We don't anticipate issuing a permit that would have negative consequences," said Tom Kovalchuk, a DEP geologist who recently held a public meeting in Dunbar, near Amerikohl's proposed site. At the same meeting, Amerikohl president John Stilley promised jobs for the 21-month period he would operate the mine and pointed to an environmentally responsible track record in the region.
Our footprint will be very small," said Stilley, who has operated numerous sites within the Youghiogheny River watershed.
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