DEP staffer behind contested mining permit had worked for coal company

  • Marie Cusick
Ryerson Station State Park

Courtesy: Center for Coalfield Justice

Late last year the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection approved a controversial coal permit under Ryerson Station State Park. The DEP staffer who reviewed the permit used data he'd collected on behalf of the coal company in his decision to approve it. Center for Coalfield Justice

A judge has raised concerns over how the state Department of Environmental Protection handled a controversial mining permit under a western Pennsylvania state park. Court records show the agency’s approval of the Consol Energy permit partially relied on data collected by a DEP staffer who had previously done consulting work for Consol.

Two environmental groups challenged the permit allowing Consol to mine under a stream in a Greene County’s Ryerson Station State Park late last year. In a rare move, the state Environmental Hearing Board sided with the groups.

In his opinion, Judge Steven Beckman questions the role of Jeffery Thomas, a licensed professional geologist with DEP’s California District Mining Office. Before joining DEP in July 2015, Thomas testified he’d worked for Moody & Associates environmental consulting firm for 11 years. Some of his work there was on behalf of Consol’s Bailey Mine. Thomas then said he used data he’d collected as a consultant to later evaluate Consol’s permit application to DEP for that same mine.

Judge Beckman notes he found it “extremely surprising” DEP management allowed this situation to occur.

“It is inherently difficult to be fully objective in reviewing data that you collected on behalf of a permit applicant,” writes Beckman. “We question the wisdom of assigning a department employee to review his own data collected on behalf of a permit applicant, as part of the process of determining whether to issue a permit.”

Likewise, when DEP’s Acting Secretary Patrick McDonnell became aware of the situation, he told StateImpact Pennsylvania he found it “problematic.”

“I’ve asked the question, ‘How does that happen?’ To have the same person submitting the data, reviewing the data.”

Thomas did not respond to requests for comment.

The permit was challenged by the Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter and Center for Coalfield Justice. They argued the mining would have damaged a high-quality stream in the state park. The state blamed Consol for destroying the park’s 62-acre lake a decade ago.

Sierra Club PA Director Joanne Kilgour compares the current situation to, “asking a student to grade their own exam without ever having the teacher review their answers,” she writes in an email. “Except in this case it is not a grade at stake, but a huge underground mine with the potential to permanently damage waterways and alter the nature of this community.”

Consol is appealing the Environmental Hearing Board decision to Commonwealth Court. The company cites the board’s decision as the reason it had to briefly lay off 200 workers last month. It has argued the stream buffer ordered by the state would require it to leave approximately 360,000 tons of coal underground, amounting to a loss of $15.3 million.

Note: this story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Bailey mine.

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