EPA withdraws discharge permit for Arizona mine
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has withdrawn a water discharge permit for a controversial coal-mining operation in northern Arizona pending public hearings.
The EPA's decision about the permit for Peabody Energy's Black Mesa mine complex comes after an appeal by environmentalists who contend the discharge of heavy metal and pollutants threatens water sources that nearby Navajo and Hopi communities depend on for drinking, farming and ranching.
Dave Smith, water permits manager in the EPA's San Francisco office, said Thursday the agency believes the permit is solid but wanted to provide an opportunity for additional public comment.
“Our job is to focus on the Clean Water Act piece of this right now and whether the water discharges have significant affects, and to make sure they are adequately controlled," he said.
Peabody spokeswoman Beth Sutton called the environmentalists' claims frivolous and said the company has a record of compliance with the Clean Water Act. The mining will continue in a “business-as-usual fashion," and Peabody will maintain best practices to assure good water quality, she said.
The mining complex that includes the Black Mesa and Kayenta mines sits on nearly 65,000 acres Peabody leases from the Navajo and Hopi tribes and has been in operation since the 1970s. Coal from the Kayenta mine supplies the Navajo Generating Station near Page. The Black Mesa mine supplied the Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nev., until the power plant was shuttered in 2005.
Water discharge that includes storm water and runoff from mining, coal preparation and reclamation areas is held in more than 230 ponds at the mining complex. About 33 have leaks, and the EPA has said some of those don't meet water-quality standards, need additional monitoring or need removal.
The EPA said many of the ponds are internal and used for treatment and storage. About 111 ultimately discharge to the Little Colorado River system through a series of washes and tributaries.
Peabody's five-year water discharge permit went into effect Oct. 1. With the withdrawal, the EPA said Peabody can continue operating on a previous permit that expired in 2006 but has been administratively extended.
Stephen Etsitty, executive director of the Navajo Nation EPA, said the new permit contained improvements over the last, including new regulatory requirements for reclamation areas and revisions to monitoring plans. He added that the Navajo EPA's monitoring of discharge in the mine area hasn't raised any red flags.
“We're pretty confident that what's contained in the permit is going to withstand any additional review," he said. “We're just hopeful that this doesn't drag out the process of putting a necessary permit in place."
Environmentalists commended the EPA for reconsidering the permit and said the action would force Peabody to comply with the Clean Water Act. It also will give the EPA a chance to remedy what they say has been environmental injustice.
“The tribal groups know the heavy metal and pollutants are affecting their livestock and ecological community," said Amy Atwood, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “We need to see EPA disclosing what those impacts are, where they are occurring, and in the process, find a better way to contain them."
The EPA initially denied a request to hold a public hearing on the permit. Smith said the agency reconsidered in light of the appeal and will hold two such hearings next year on the Hopi and Navajo reservations.
Smith doesn't anticipate the draft permit will change but said, “We are open-minded."
“We do not prejudge," he said. “That's why we have public hearings. If we need to adjust the permit, we will."
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