Enviros: Proposed coal mine would threaten refuge

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A proposed surface coal mine spanning 1,500 acres of southwestern Indiana's coal country would threaten an adjacent national wildlife refuge used by migratory birds with heavy metals and sediments exposed by mining and earth-moving operations, three environmental groups warn.

Evansville-based Vigo Coal Co. is seeking a federal permit under the Clean Water Act to develop the proposed Vigo Sunna Mine about 30 miles northeast of Evansville. Its permit application states that it would remove 18 miles of waterways, 29 acres of open waters and seven acres of wetlands in Pike County to expose the region's underlying coal deposits.

The Sierra Club, Hoosier Environmental Council and Conservation Law Center contend that the company's request is devoid of information about the vegetation, fish, aquatic insects and other wildlife that exists in the habitats it would destroy to reach the area's coal seams.

Without that data, they say the company's proposal to restore the area's habitat following mining, as is required under federal law, rings hollow.

"You have to know what the quality of the resource was, how it's functioning and what's there. You can't just say, 'We're going to impact so many linear feet or so many acres and then we'll restore it,'" said Tim Maloney, the Hoosier Environmental Council's senior policy director.

The groups detailed their opposition to Vigo Coal's permit application in formal comments submitted during a public comment period that ended July 24.

The mine's proximity to the Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge is of particular concern of the groups. Part of the mine site is only two miles from the refuge, which harbors important nesting, feeding and resting sites for migratory birds.

The groups said that mining activities could allow sediments and heavy metals such as mercury and arsenic found naturally in coal seams to enter two streams that are tributaries of the Patoka River, which flows through part of the wildlife refuge.

"Coal is basically filled with all kinds of toxic materials–it's not just pure carbon," said Jodi Perras, who oversee the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign in Indiana. "You're digging up mercury and arsenic, selenium, boron, and when you dig that stuff out of the ground and expose it to water, you're polluting the area's waterways."

Unlike underground coal mining, where coal is extracted through tunnels dug into coal deposits, surface mining such as Vigo Coal's proposal involves removing surface vegetation, soils and rock and then blasting or digging out underlying coal, creating deep, valley-like excavations.

Maloney said surface mining could impact the federally endangered Indiana bat and other species of concern, including the copperbelly watersnake, found in the area.

The environmentalists want the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is reviewing the permit request, to add requirements spelling out exactly what Vigo Coal must do to prevent runoff from the site and ensure that the area is restored close to its current state when mining ends.

Vigo Coal CEO Mike Schiele declined to speak July 26 about the groups' concerns about the company's proposed mine, saying "I have no comments, period."

Documents submitted by the company to the Army Corps indicate it would cost about $25 million to open the mine, which would yield at least 3 million tons of coal and create about 50 "high-wage jobs."

Vigo Coal also said in those documents that pod mining, an alternative to surface mining suggested by the environmental groups that involves excavating small pits between streams or wetlands, would be unfeasible for the site and would more than double the mining costs.

The Army Corps of Engineers is expected to take at least four months to reach a decision on the company's application, said Sam Werner, a Newburgh, Ind.-based regulatory project manager for the agency's Louisville, Ky., district.

He said the agency's options include approving the permit, rejecting it or asking the company to alter its proposal "if we determine there are environmental reasons to do so."

Werner said Army Corps will take into consideration the project's proximity to the wildlife refuge and its potential impact on the sprawling preserve.

If the agency approves the permit, Indiana regulators would then issue a general mining permit for the site. Environmentalists have challenged those state permits, calling them inadequate for the nature of mining operations and their potential impact on waters.

Georgia Parham, a Bloomington-based spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency is working with Indiana's Office of Surface Mining and the state's Division of Reclamation to ensure that Vigo Coal prepares adequate plans to safeguard the Indiana bat, a mouse-sized federally protected bat.

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