A questionable partnership between the PA DEP and a coal company

When entomologist Andrew Liebhold moved to Greene County in the 1970s, he soon fell in love with Dunkard Creek, regularly kayaking the 37-mile waterway with his wife and two daughters while developing an appreciation for its stretches of scenic beauty.

Leibhold never dreamed that this placid tributary on the Monongahela River would become the center of a questionable partnership between a coal operator and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the state agency entrusted with managing natural resources.

Although mining is a way of life in the southwest corner of the state, Liebhold and others became alarmed when, in 2003, experts at West Virginia University’s Water Research Institute warned about an impending environmental disaster: The abandoned Shannopin mine was filling with acid drainage that threatened to flood into Dunkard Creek and eventually into the Mon River.

Such an event would likely foul the drinking water of 43,000 households and destroy a robust recreational fishery. To make matters worse, the DEP had failed to bond the bankrupt mine and was stuck with the high  cost of pumping out the water.

Sandy Liebhold on the banks of Dunkard Creek in Greene County, Pa.

Sandy Liebhold on the banks of Dunkard Creek in Greene County. Liebhold, an avid kayaker, is an advocate for keeping the creek healthy. (Photo by Martha Rial)

“I remember being a little terrified about the rising mine pool,” said Liebhold, who is known as Sandy and is now president of the watchdog group called Friends of Dunkard Creek. “I live above a mine. They’re all over Greene County. The thought of a breakout is scary stuff."

Like others in the community, Liebhold was relieved when the state announced that a West Virginia-based mine operator Dana Mining Company was stepping in to help avert a catastrophic breakout on the Mon in exchange for access to coal.

The partnership was outlined in a consent order of agreement, and announced by then-Governor Ed Rendell in a special ceremony attended by Dana president James Laurita  Jr. and others at the old Shannopin mine site in 2003.

According to the 2003 agreement, Dana would save the state the cost of pumping out the Shannopin mine pool and would treat the water at a plant they would build, in part, with $8 million in state loans and grants. Dana would create a non-profit affiliate called AMD Reclamation, Inc. (AMDRI) to handle the water treatment.

Nine years later, however, the original agreement has not been fulfilled, and Liebhold and others with a stake in the health of the creek say that Dana and related companies with the DEP’s blessing have used the agreement to their advantage at great cost to the environment.

Acid mine drainage pours out of an abandoned mine near Dunkard Creek in Greene County, Pa.

Acid mine drainage pours out of the abandoned Maiden-Moffit Mine near Dunkard Creek in Greene County. The mine has not been in operation since the 1920s. (Photo by Martha Rial)

PublicSource reviewed numerous documents from the DEP, the companies and the courts for this story.

Some of the DEP’s actions, according to Kurt Weist a former DEP attorney who now is with the environmental advocacy group PennFuture (Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future) are illegal because the agency failed to follow the normal permitting process, often keeping the public in the dark about Dana’s activities.

Leibhold said he feels as though Pennsylvanians “have been subjected to an elaborate bait and switch.”

“We were promised one thing in the original consent order and we’re getting something totally different,” he said.

“It makes you question whether DEP is more interested in helping out the mining industry than protecting our natural resources.”

Dana’s interest wasn’t entirely altruistic. Removing the water from the mine would give the company access to a seam of coal above the Shannopin mine. At least some of the coal was expected to fuel Longview Power Plant, a $2 billion facility slated for construction in Maidsville, W.Va. Dana also hoped to send the mine water to Longview to cool the plant's turbines.

“We were thrilled,” recalled the Greene County Watershed Alliance’s Terri Davin, who attended the partnership launch at the old Shannopin site.

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