18 coal permits expired at Ohio EPA

JULIE CARR SMYTH AP Statehouse Correspondent Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Eighteen coal facilities in Ohio are operating with expired pollution-discharge permits under an agency where allegations of coal-industry influence arose during a personnel flap last year, an Associated Press review has found.

Ohio Environmental Protection Agency records show 13 of the 18 have expired since Republican Gov. John Kasich took office in 2011, or about a quarter of the 49 issued to coal facilities.

The agreements spell out what pollutants each mining operation, coal preparation plant, storm water facility or coal waste storage area can release under state and federal clean water laws. The AP obtained data on the permits through a public records request.

Several holders of expired permits gave generously to Kasich's 2010 gubernatorial campaign, state campaign finance records show.

That included at least $35,000 from employees of Murray Energy Corp. and its subsidiaries and its political action committee, and about $22,000 from executives of Oxford Mining Co. Murray and Oxford companies hold four of the expired permits.

Rosebud Mining, another holder of an expired permit, has corporate ties to Freedom Industries, the company at the center of a January chemical spill in West Virginia.

Environmentalists contend delayed permit renewals allow mining companies to avoid modernizing cleanup technologies as required under the federal Clean Water Act.

Robert Shields, who chairs the Sierra Club's Ohio chapter, said the expired permits combined with a recently unearthed pro-drilling communications plan at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, shows the Kasich administration is putting industry interests above the health and well-being of Ohioans.

"We can't afford to be the next West Virginia or North Carolina," Shields said. "We want to stop a spill before it happens, and we want to ensure that our water is safe to drink and brush our teeth with."

Messages seeking comment were left with Rosebud and Oxford.

Ohio EPA spokesman Chris Abbruzzese said renewing permits is a complex process. Fourteen of the permits are well on their way to updated approvals, he said.

"These permits, even if they are expired, are legal and enforceable and protective, and allow the agency to go and do inspections when we feel like it's warranted," Abbruzzese said.

Internal Ohio EPA emails obtained by the AP indicate the pace of coal permitting has slowed significantly under Kasich: new individual coal permits issued dropped from five in 2011 to zero in 2013, while new general permits for coal discharge dropped from 19 in 2011 to five in 2013.

The federal EPA has the power to impose penalties on Ohio for extended delays in reissuing permits through its state grant program.

An online search finds dozens of violation notices against companies, even under expired permits. They involve a host of issues, from facility upkeep to violating limits set on certain chemical discharge.

However, a former lawyer for Ohio EPA says violations against entities with expired permits involve outdated environmental laws.

Richard Sahli, now a private attorney representing environmental groups, said permits are designed to last no longer than five years so that they can be updated to reflect adjustments to pollution standards as well as technological advancements available to limit the damaging impact of runoff.

Under Ohio law, as long as a company applies for a renewal at least six months before its permit expires, it can operate under that expired permit indefinitely. State records show Murray Energy's Ohio Valley Coal Co. has run its Powhatan No. 6 mine in Belmont County under an expired permit for nearly nine years, and several others have done so for five to seven years.

If you're a company that's able to avoid installing those oftentimes expensive upgrades "you're getting a windfall," Sahli said.

Murray spokesman Gary Broadbent said once a company has applied for its new permit within the required window -- as his company did -- the time it takes for a renewal is largely out of its hands.

"We are waiting on the relevant governmental agencies to process our applications," he said. "Unfortunately, this approval process can be very lengthy and complicated."

Ohio EPA's coal permitting efforts came under scrutiny last year after a 39-year agency veteran claimed Kasich's administration forced him to resign amid pressure from the coal industry.

George Elmaraghy headed Ohio EPA's Division of Surface Water, which issues permits for mining and other activities. He said in a widely publicized email to his staff that coal companies sought permits that he said would have violated state and federal laws and harmed Ohio's streams and wetlands. He's pointed to a U.S. EPA objection that's holding up one of the lapsed permits -- for American Energy Corp.'s Century Mine in Belmont County -- as an example. American Energy is also owned by Murray.

Broadbent reiterated the company's earlier position that it had nothing to do with Elmaraghy's departure or with pressuring the Kasich administration.

The Sierra Club has pressed Kasich to provide proof, calling on the governor to explain details of Elmaraghy's departure and that of his boss, Ohio EPA Director Scott Nally, who resigned suddenly without explanation in January.

Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols responded: "It sounds like some enviro-lobbyists have been watching too many 'West Wing' reruns. I'm afraid there's no drama to report here."