The Wayne National Forest is still recovering from coal mining impacts from over half a decade ago.

On Tuesday, the Sierra Club was joined by five state and national environmental groups in filing formal comments with the Wayne National Forest (WNF) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) opposing the agencies’ plan to lease 432.54 acres of federal coal for underground room and pillar mining.  The joint comments were also co-signed by Buckeye Forest Council, Earthjustice, Ohio Environmental Council, Heartwood, and the Center for Biological Diversity.

According to Nathan Johnson, staff attorney for the Buckeye Forest Council, “the Wayne’s proposed coal lease will contribute significantly to several environmental problems facing Southeastern Ohio and the nation, including climate change, toxic air pollution, coal ash waste contamination, and impacts to endangered species.”

Figures provided by WNF and BLM reveal that, if mined and combusted in power plants, the coal at issue would be responsible for 22.6 times the total annual greenhouse gas emissions generated from all sources in Athens County.

“As we have reached 400 ppm of CO2, the federal government above all else should address greenhouse gas emissions in all of its proposed actions. As a resident of Athens County, I do not support the increase of CO2 emissions that this action will allow along with its complex impacts on environment, endangered species and human health,” said Loraine McCosker, co-chair of the Forest and Public Lands committee of the Ohio Sierra Club

The comments filed by the green groups point out that the WNF and BLM are legally required to conduct an in-depth study of the project, called an environmental impact statement or “EIS”, before deciding whether to proceed with coal leasing.  “As of today, the Wayne and BLM have only conducted a preliminary analysis of the potential impacts of the coal project.  Unfortunately, their assessment greatly underestimates the climate change significance of the project and completely fails to address significant air and water pollution impacts,” said Johnson.  “Federal law clearly requires the agencies to undertake a more in-depth study,” added Johnson.

The green groups’ comments note that the WNF and BLM give no consideration to the project’s potential contributions to coal ash waste problems.

Coal combustion waste, or “coal ash,” contains toxic chemicals and heavy metals and pollutants known to cause cancer, birth defects, reproductive disorders, neurological damage, learning disabilities, kidney disease, and diabetes.  Coal ash is the second largest industrial waste stream in the United States.  In Ohio and across the nation, coal ash is stored in large dams or impoundments. Coal ash impoundments are considered by the USEPA to be significant contributors to water contamination, as they may readily leach or migrate into the water supplied for household and agricultural use.

Ohio has some of the worst coal ash waste regulations in the nation. Ohio regulations do not require coal ash ponds to use protective liners, do not require groundwater monitoring, and do not prohibit coal ash ponds from being constructed in the water table.  Due in part to these lax regulations, documented water contamination has occurred at seven coal ash dump sites across the state.  Many other sites in Ohio may also be poisoned but remain undetected, because the state does not require groundwater monitoring at all sites.

“Several years ago it was determined that Meigs County had the highest asthma and lung cancer death rates, both attributable to coal exposure, as well as the shortest life expectancy.  Living next to an unlined coal ash impoundment increases your risk of dying from cancer to 1 in 50,”said Elisa Young, resident of Meigs County, Ohio – an area likely to be impacted by the project.  “Citizens have pushed unsuccessfully for decades to have coal ash properly regulated as the hazardous waste that it is.  It’s not safe to assume that regulation will pick up the slack in protecting our currently overburdened communities if the BLM and Forestry Service fail to protect us,” added Young.

Coal ash impoundments are also subject to relatively frequent catastrophic failures and spills.  Major spills occur roughly once every three years.  Between 1972 and 2008, there were 53 publicized coal slurry spills in the Appalachian region, one of the largest of which was a 309 million gallon spill that occurred in Martin County, KY in 2000.  In Harriman, Tennessee on December 22, 2008, a coal ash dam at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Kingston Fossil Plant broke, releasing 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash into the Emory and Clinch Rivers, destroying three homes and damaging a dozen others. By volume, this spill is the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history—100 times greater than the Exxon Valdez oil spill and 5 times larger than the BP Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010.

Coal-fired power plants are also the single largest source of airborne mercury, which can affect the development of children and cause neurological disorders as well as being a direct contributing factor in the issuance of fish consumption advisors.  Approximately 554,000 asthma attacks are directly attributable to power plant pollution, resulting in 26,000 emergency room visits for asthma alone.

The green groups’ public comments can be viewed at: http://www.buckeyeforestcouncil.org/images/stories/bfc%20et%20al.%20comments%20re%20blm%20federal%20coal%20lease.pdf