The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet has issued two general coal mining permits for water pollution from operations in Eastern and Western Kentucky.
These documents are kind of like blanket permits; coal mines that meet the criteria can apply for one, rather than go through the time-consuming process of applying for a site-specific individual permit. But environmental advocates have long argued that streamlining the process for regulators and coal companies comes at the expense of health and the environment.
“Historically, general permits have been viewed as a tool that contains less onerous or less stringent conditions than individual permits,” said Bruce Scott, commissioner of the Department for Environmental Protection. But he argues that’s not necessarily the case with the new general permits. Unlike in the past, these permits assume worst-case scenarios and include limits for certain pollutants which may or may not be discharged.
But Tim Joice from the Kentucky Waterways Alliance said there’s a problem with the way these pollutants are measured. His organization has advocated for the use of a numeric value for problems like conductivity, which is the measure of the ability of water to conduct an electric current.
“In coal mining areas, conductivity can become a problem,” he said. “Well, we wanted to see an actual numeric number on that. But because the state does not have a numeric water quality standard, we have a narrative. That means the state is very unwilling to implement a numeric limit on the general permit.”
Another issue is who’s excluded from using the general permits. The DEP doesn’t allow companies who are going to discharge into impaired streams that have undergone pollution diets to use the permits. But there are two big “ifs” here: the stream has to be designated as “impaired” for the specific pollutant in question and have underwent the extensive Total Maximum Daily Load—or pollution diet—process.
“But the reality is that the state may only have a couple of these TMDLs or pollution diets done for coal mining in Eastern Kentucky. So that’s essentially a very limited, or almost entirely null, exclusion in our eyes, because it applies to almost nothing.”
Scott couldn’t say how many streams are both listed as impaired for coal mining pollutants and have underwent TMDLs, but said the department had never completed TMDLs for conductivity, which is a common problem in the Eastern coalfields.
He also defended the department’s use of narrative water quality standards, which uses descriptions of what a healthy waterway looks like. And the Environmental Protection Agency agrees.
“But the bottom line is, EPA in its comment letter and in subsequent responses back to us has said that we’ve met all the requirements to protect human health and the environment with these permits,” Scott said.
Overall, Joice agreed that the new general permit is an improvement over its previous iteration. But he said it would be more protective of the environment to consider each water pollution permit on a case-by-case basis, rather than allow a catch-all.