Longwall mining a source of grief for DEP officials
A Johnstown native, J. Scott Roberts, is familiar with southwestern Pennsylvania and has heard disgruntled residents say Department of Environmental Protection stands for Don’t Expect Protection.
But, the DEP deputy secretary for mineral resource management said the agency is cognizant of its public image and works to make sure residents believe their voices are heard.
“Certainly, we’re concerned about how people perceive us,” Roberts said. “We have a job to do and that is to execute the laws. We don’t have the power to make decisions contrary to the law. Sometimes we have to make decisions that are not popular because of that.
“We understand that upsets people. In America, people have the freedom of speech. They have the right to their opinions.”
Roberts said it is understandable if the public does not like all DEP decisions.
“But if we fail to hear them in their positions or fail to communicate what we are doing, we have to improve those lines of communication,” Roberts said.
Longwall mining is a hot issue that often frustrates people, Roberts said.
The 1994 amendments to the state’s Bituminous Mine Subsidence and Land Conservation Act – known as Act 54 – are the root of many of those frustrations, Roberts said.
“I can’t imagine a law less popular in Pennsylvania,” Roberts said.
Under Act 54, companies that mine coal underground must repair or compensate property owners for mine-related damage to structures on the surface. Such companies also must immediately provide temporary water and permanently replace water supplies lost or contaminated due to mining.
Operators must protect perennial streams in areas they undermine. The law specifies the procedures for resolving damage claims between the mine operator and property owner. The DEP becomes involved only after those efforts fail.
The law requires mine operators to protect public water supplies and prevent mine-related material damage to public buildings and facilities. DEP is required to intervene when homes and agricultural buildings are likely to experience irreparable damage.
Pennsylvania has a rich history in mining, Roberts noted. Some form of mining is being conducted in 66 of the commonwealth’s 67 counties.
But the industry also has a dark side. More than 51,000 miners have lost their lives since the state began to compile statistics in 1870. For every miner who dies in an active e mine, four are killed in abandoned mines, Roberts said.
“The DEP internally sees itself as a regulatory agency,” DEP spokesman Tom Rathbun said. “Therefore it does not take one side or the other. Sometimes that is perceived as taking a side.
“Our job is to interrupt the law as written.”
Rathbun said the Rendell administration has initiated a public outreach program that changed the way regional directors answer to DEP Secretary Kathleen McGinty. It also changed the way they deal with local government officials, businesses and the public. The goal is to establish a single point-of-contact
“When a new administration comes in, they inherit a lot of historic issues,” Rathbun said. “It’s a tribute that Kathleen McGinty acknowledges these and is answering for them.”
For residents of Fallowfield or other Mid-Mon Valley communities dealing with mining subsidence, the single point of contact is the staff at the DEP offices in California Technology Park.
Roberts said things are looking up for the DEP -…with one exception.
“If you step away from longwall mining, the DEP’s image is improving with the public,” Roberts said.