DEP settles repeated Hobet blast violations

Sunday November 11, 2001                                                                                                                                                            HOME

                                                                                                        BIG UGLY

By Ken Ward Jr.

In mid-1999, state inspectors cited Arch Coal Inc. for a pattern of blasting violations at the company's Hobet 21 complex in Boone County.

Between October 1998 and June 1999, Arch was cited four times for exceeding rules that limit the noise created by mine explosives, according to Department of Environmental Protection records.

DEP officials issued an order threatening to close down the operation. But the agency took no action to actually revoke the permit. A year later, the closure threat was withdrawn.

Over the course of that year, DEP inspector Dan Bays cited Hobet 21 three more times for violations of blasting limits.

In February 2001, DEP issued a second order that threatened to revoke Hobet 21's permit.

Two months later, the agency dropped that threat. DEP and Hobet signed a consent order. The company promised to fix its blasting problems.

Blasting violations continue despite DEP crackdown

Over the last few months, DEP has cracked down on patterns of violation by Massey Energy and AEI Resources Inc. Company lawyers have had to appear at formal hearings, and argue why their clients shouldn't lose their permits.

But when Arch Coal's Hobet 21 repeatedly violated state blasting limits, DEP officials took no such tough action. Two patterns of violation in a row were settled without formal hearings.

Arch Coal has paid less than $6,500 in fines for 10 blasting violations over the last three years, according to DEP computer records.

Matt Crum, director of the DEP Division of Mining and Reclamation, declined comment on the case. The Hobet case was settled in April, two months before Crum joined the agency in June.

DEP Secretary Michael Callaghan said that he was not familiar with the case, and couldn't comment on it.

Deck Sloan, an Arch Coal spokesman, did not return a phone call.

Bill Simmons, a supervising inspector at DEP's Logan field office, said that his agency thought Hobet would fix the problems after the first pattern of violations.

"They implemented a system that we thought would eliminate the problem," Simmons said. "It didn't work out, and we wrote three more violations."

Resolution through
settlement ‘not unusual'

Simmons said it's not unusual for DEP to resolve a pattern of violations through a settlement with the company.

"Typically, they'll request a hearing and discuss the issues, and we end up going into a consent order to address what the problems are," Simmons said.

Arch Coal subsidiary Hobet Mining Inc. operates the sprawling Hobet 21 complex. The mountaintop removal mine covers thousands of acres in Boone and Lincoln counties. The mine produces about 4.5 million tons of coal a year, and employs 240 workers, according to the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training.

Mountaintop removal operations use huge explosions to blast apart mountains and make it easier to reach coal reserves.

Blasting violations have been a constant enforcement issue at the operation, records show. A few nearby residents and property owners have filed repeated complaints about the blasting.

Under state law, the DEP can revoke permits and shut down mining operations that commit "patterns of violation."

DEP may consider as few as two violations on the same permit during any 12-month period to be a pattern of violations. If three violations are cited during a 12-month period, DEP must evaluate whether a pattern of violations exists.

If DEP concludes that a pattern of violations exists, and that those violations "were caused willfully or through an unwarranted failure to comply," the agency must issue a show cause order. This order gives the company a chance to argue why its permit should not be revoked.

Show cause order issued, then withdrawn

In February, the federal Office of Surface Mining issued a report that concluded DEP does not properly follow these enforcement rules. OSM said that DEP inspectors and supervisors frequently overlook patterns of violations by coal companies.

At Hobet 21, DEP records show that Bays suggested the agency issue a show cause order after the company had been cited for four blasting violations in an eight-month period.

On June 17, 1999, Bays filed a "request for show cause order" form. Blasting citations were issued on Oct. 6, 1998, and Jan. 8, April 2 and June 11, 1999, records show. Along with the four blasting violations, Bays listed two other, unrelated citations.

Simmons and Joe Parker, assistant DEP mining office chief for southern operations, signed off on the show cause order.

Arch Coal asked for a show cause hearing, but one was never held.

On Sept. 25, 2000, Simmons wrote an e-mail to McCormick and asked him to withdraw the show cause order.

"The company has modified its blasting procedures to alleviate the air blast problems we had experienced," Simmons wrote. "Apparently, these changes are working, because we are not receiving very many blasting complaints in the area at this time."

McCormick approved Simmons' request, and sent a letter to the company on Sept. 26 to withdraw the show cause order.

On Friday, McCormick said he didn't know why it took more than a year for action to be taken to resolve the show cause order.

"That's not normal," McCormick said. "It's not a particular practice that we do."

Another order issued after
further violations

Despite Hobet 21's new procedures, more blasting violations followed.

In February 2001, Bays filed another request for a show cause order.

This time, Bays listed blasting citations on June 16, June 28, and Oct. 4, 1999, on May 30, July 3, and Oct. 20, 2000, and on Feb. 9, 2001.

DEP supervisors issued the show cause order, and Arch Coal asked for a hearing. That hearing was never held.

Instead, in April, DEP officials agreed to a settlement with the company.

Hobet Mining officials agreed to take additional steps to control the noise from their blasting.

New violations will result
in revoked permit

Under the consent order, DEP will immediately initiate proceedings to revoke Hobet's permit if the operation commits another pattern of violations.

Bays said he thinks the matter was handled well.

"Some of those violations were for 1 or 2 decibels over the limit," Bays said Friday. "Another thing was that there was no damage [from the violations]. They were fairly minor in nature."

Bays said that he didn't want anyone to think that anything was wrong with the way DEP handled that pattern of violations.

"This was strictly on the up and up," he said. "There wasn't any strings pulled politically on this thing at all."

Since the consent order was signed, Simmons said that his office has received about eight additional complaints about Hobet 21 blasting.

None of those have resulted in violations, Simmons said. Each time, DEP inspectors checked the company's blasting logs and found that the noise was within legal limits, he said.

In September, Bays did issue one citation to Hobet 21 for a blast that sent rocks flying off the permitted mining area. But that citation occurred on the adjacent Northridge Mine permit area, not on the Westridge Mine, Bays said.

"They did get a rock that rolled down toward the county road, but that was all taken care of," Bays said. "It's a separate permit, so it's not affected by the pattern of violations we cited at the other permit."