"Fill Placement Optimization Process" Document Will Significantly Reduce the Number and Size of Steep Slope Coal Mine Valley Fills Posted: January 3, 2010
As both the Corps of Engineers and EPA scrutinize more closely the requests for authorization to dump spoil material from strip mines into headwater stream reaches under the Clean Water Act Section 404 program, what has been missing is any replicable, defensible, science-based process for determining when a mine permit applicant has truly "avoided" in-stream impacts to the extent possible, by maximizing return of spoil material to the mine bench, and exhausting other available upland disposal locations (that could result in reclamation of pre-law existing benches as well). Similarly, the question of when unavoidable impacts had been "minimized" lacked a defensible protocol that would provide the agencies and the public any real assurance that the mine plan had sought to avoid instream impacts.
The "Fill Placement Optimization Process" is intended to provide, for the first time, an objective and well-defined method for achieving the return of a mined area to the pre-mining approximate original contour (in both aspect AND elevation, the latter being something that has been ignored for years)while ensuring stability of backfill material returned to the mined area and minimization of land and instream impacts.
The protocol, which is now in use by the Louisville District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and EPA Region IV, determines a reasonable quantity of excess spoil that may be placed in excess spoil disposal sites such as valley fills and head of hollow fills, while first requiring that the premining elevation be restored (which will greatly reduce the dumping of material from mine benches and will assure more contemporaneous reclamation of disturbed areas) and that all available existing unreclaimed benches within 1/2 mile of the mine permit be evaluated for upland placement of excess spoil prior to consideration of a valley or head of hollow fill.
The protocol optimizes the placement of spoil in order to reduce watershed impacts, and provides a structured process for use in permit review and in field inspection (and public compliance efforts).
The protocol builds on the AOC+ policy in effect in West Virginia, in several ways. First, the new policy applies to contour mines as well as area or "mountaintop removal" mines. Second, the new policy increases the deck height of fills for contour operations, with a maximum of 50% of the wall height. Historically, Kentucky has had fill decks at the elevation of the lowest seam being mined. Third, in addition to defining the stream impact length, the policy also identifies the stream impacts and requires that the final mine design does not affect more. Finally, an applicant cannot start the next fill, if more than 50% of fills have been initiated, without certifying that they are still in compliance with the mine plan. This should significantly reduce and penalize over-permitting of fills, and consequently preserve stream impact minimization throughout the life of the mine.
On December 16, 2009, the Kentucky Department of Narural Resources issued Reclamation Advisory Memorandum #145, incorporating the Fill Placement Optimization Process document, and encouraging the utilization of the protocol, in recognition that the Corps of Engineers and EPA are utilizing the guidance document and requiring all pending applicatiuons for 404 authorization to utilize this objective, systematic process.
KRC is very appreciative of the work that John Morgan, on behalf of KRC, and all of the agency officials and coal representatives, devoted to creating a process document that, for the first time in over twenty-four years, will demand that AOC be achieved and that impacts from fills be minimized and the location optimized to reduce terrestrial and aquatic impacts. As has been the case since 1984, KRC remains committed to reducing the heavy footprint of mining on land and water resources and on communities, as we transition to cleaner energy sources.
A copy of RAM # 145 has been posted in electronic format on the Kentucky Department for Natural Resources Division of Mine Permit website. If you prefer, write to FitzKRC@aol.com and we will e-mail you a copy of the protocol.