A coal company's controversial plan to pump water with high amounts of chloride from an underground mine into a southwest Virginia river has alarmed and outraged Kentuckians who worry about the effects the pollutant could have on fish and drinking water in a nearby Eastern Kentucky county.
Despite the outcry from Kentucky officials -- including Attorney General Greg Stumbo -- as well as leaders in Virginia's Buchanan County, Virginia state regulators have signed off on the plan.
"We would not have approved it if we did not believe it was safe," said Mike Abbott, spokesman for Virginia's Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. "It was probably one of the more extensively reviewed applications that this agency has ever received."
Consolidated Coal Co., a subsidiary of Pittsburgh-based Consol Energy Inc., one of the nation's largest energy producers, says it needs to dispose of the mine water to continue its mining operations in Buchanan County. With more than 500 employers, the mine is one of the largest in the region, Consol spokesman Tom Hoffman said.
The mine, a major shaft of which descends to about sea level, contains billions of gallons of high-chloride water that has seeped in from surrounding rocks. The company has been transferring the water into an abandoned mine, but those shafts are filling up. With the approval, mine officials will now pump the water through a 19-mile pipeline to the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River.
In Kentucky, the Levisa flows into Fishtrap Lake and supplies drinking water to much of Pike County. The Levisa Fork winds its way to Louisa, where it joins the Tug Fork to form the Big Sandy River.
Mine officials will begin discharging the mine water in upcoming weeks, Hoffman said. He said crews have already installed the pipe from the mine to the river, as well as a diffuser, a device that will speed up dispersal of the high-chloride water in the 50-foot-wide stream of the Levisa.
Buchanan County Attorney Mickey McGlothlin, who opposes Consol's plan, said the mine will pump 14.4 million gallons of the wastewater into the stream each discharge day. The mine would discharge waste only in the months when the river is flowing steadily.
Dumping such large amounts of water with a high content of chloride -- which is essentially salt -- into a freshwater river is a first for Virginia and Kentucky, experts say. They worry about unforeseen adverse effects beyond dead fish and aquatic life.
There's no question that fish and other aquatic life are going to die, especially at the point where the mine water enters the Levisa, said Don Orth, a Virginia Tech professor of fisheries and wildlife science who was asked by Buchanan County officials to review Consol's proposal.
"But no one knows how toxic or how far that toxic zone will continue in the river," Orth said. "If it is more toxic than they anticipate, then what are they going to do? The Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy has already approved the permit."
Mining officials say the chloride should have ample dissolution and shouldn't have an impact on the stream beyond the mixing zone, which is where the mine water is first pumped into the Levisa before being dispersed downstream.
Buchanan County officials and others have asked for a hearing before the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy in hopes that it will reverse its decision. The date for that hearing has not yet been set. If DMME's decision is upheld, officials will file a lawsuit to stop the discharge, McGlothlin said.
McGlothlin has advocated that the mine look at other alternatives, including treating the water through a process called osmosis -- which would eliminate the chloride -- before dumping it into the river. He said Consol officials have estimated that the mine would be in operation for about 17 more years and would make $7 billion in that period. McGlothlin said it would cost about $105 million to treat the water through osmosis.
But Consol officials have said that the process is too expensive and unreasonable.
Kentucky officials say their hands are tied until the discharge reaches this state.
"We have fought this from day one," said Kentucky Deputy Attorney General Pierce Whites. "We have shown up at public hearings in Virginia and we have argued vigorously against issuing that permit because we think this is a danger to Kentucky's waterways."
When Consol officials began seeking a permit to dump the waste into the Levisa about a year ago, there were concerns that additional contaminants besides chloride could be in the water. Some of the water had been stored in an abandoned mine, which possibly had been contaminated by metal, batteries and oil from machinery, among other things, officials said.
DMME has since required that crews test the water for such contaminants and treat it first, if necessary.
"We know that it will be closely monitored because of the initial amount of scrutiny that people in Virginia demand this project have," Hoffman said.
Kentucky officials remain concerned.
"We are somewhat assured that they are going to be doing their job and ensuring all that's in the water is chloride," Whites said. "But assuming it is just chloride, you still have an issue because that high salt content can adversely affect aquatic life across the board."
Kentucky officials had threatened to file a lawsuit last year if the permit was granted, Whites said. He said attorneys have not yet sought court protection because Kentucky has to show proof of damage before it can stop the process. Whites said state officials will be closely monitoring the river and watching for signs of contamination.
"We are alarmed and we are on high alert," he said.
This wait-and-see approach has some Pike Countians on edge, said Brenda Urias, 52, who lives in Phyllis, a mile below the Levisa.
"I just don't think it is a good idea," said Urias, who is also a member of Kentuckians for Commonwealth. "I know they say they are going to be monitoring it, but they might not see the effects of what this is doing until six months down the road."
Staff writer Lee Mueller contributed to this report.