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7,000 fewer acres in Pennsylvania sit atop mines

| Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

A shift in coal industry dynamics, with more efficient operations and mine relocation, has resulted in less land sitting atop mines in the state.

A new report released Tuesday by the Department of Environmental Protection said there has been an 18 percent decline in the amount of acreage located on top of mines. In 2013, 31,234 acres of land in Pennsylvania sat atop mines, according to the report, down from 38,256 acres five years ago.

Researchers say the decline reflects a reduced demand for coal and extension of Consol Energy Inc.'s Bailey Mine into parts of West Virginia. But John Pippy, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, says there are multiple factors at play aside from market conditions.

At some mines, “once that area is mined out, then (it) shifts to a different operation,” Pippy said. “Our operators are becoming more and more efficient. They're capturing more from the seams and the sites. It's a mixture of all things.”

Forty-six mines operated over the latest reporting period, from 2008 to 2013, down from 50 in the 2003 to 2008 report.

The report examined underground bituminous coal mines and the land and water above them. It is the fourth in a series of reports mandated by Act 54, which requires the state to monitor mine subsidence and hold mining companies responsible for damage to water supplies.

The report was released by the Department of Environmental Protection and was conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh. Pitt researchers could not be reached for comment.

The report also found that a procedure to level the land, known as gate cutting, has been successful in reducing pooling and improving the quality of streams.

Gate cutting may improve some aspects of a stream, but it often does not account for the full impact of mining, nor prevent damage, said Patrick Grenter, executive director of the Center for Coalfield Justice, an environmental advocacy group based in Washington, Pa.

“Longwell mining is so destructive, and it is so damaging to the environment that there is no return to pre-mine status,” he said.

There were 1,250 reported incidents of damage to water supplies and structures such as houses, barns or silos during the five-year period, according to the report.

The report advised DEP to improve its data collection and maintenance system to better measure the effects of bituminous mines. The agency says it's working to improve.

“DEP sees this as an opportunity for growth and has already begun to make changes to its primary database, the Bituminous Underground Mine Information System (BUMIS). Other data collection and management upgrades are being considered in order to continue to improve in this area,” Amanda Witman, a spokeswoman for the agency, wrote in an email.

Katelyn Ferral is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5627 or kferral@tribweb.com.

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