By Isaac Vehmeier, Project Leader
In the following article, we will be exploring some of the regulations and pitfalls associated with Bluestone mining, or officially, noncoal surface mining. The information comes from years of bluestone permitting experience, as well as straight from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP). It is important for a mining operator to be aware of the rules and regulations in order to avoid a difficult situation with the PADEP from the outset. If some of these pitfalls can be avoided, the permitting process may be a relatively quick and painless experience.
Extraction of any mineral from the ground for the purpose of sale or removal from a property in Pennsylvania requires a mining license and permit. The PADEP regulations can be complicated and frustrating to deal with for one that is not familiar with them. To add to the confusion, some of the regulations are vague and open to individual interpretation. Paperwork can be confusing, and permit applications may be returned because of something as simple as an incorrectly checked box in the paperwork. It is beneficial to employ a consultant that has experience navigating the twists and turns of the permitting process. In fact, parts of the permit application must be sealed by a professional engineer in order to be accepted by the PADEP.
There are three main types of noncoal mining permits:
Small Noncoal is the simplest permit type, limiting the operator to five acres of disturbed area. While the operator may opt to split the quarry bond between mining and support area, most permittees working in a Small Noncoal quarry will bond only a few acres and reclaim behind them as they progress into the quarry.
If the operator is a larger company or would just like to disturb a more sizeable area, they may opt for a GP-105 and a Large Mining License. This allows the operator to bond both five acres of mining and five acres of support in one permit. The possible problem with the GP-105 is that the regulations state that the primary product of the quarry must be dimensional bluestone. The operator may only remove and/or crush other material that is required to either access dimensional stone or create material for reclamation. Therefore, if an operator plans to primarily crush at a site, they should either acquire a Small or Large Noncoal Mining Permit, not a GP-105.
Some of the restrictions associated with these two smaller permits do not apply to a Large Noncoal Mining Permit. There is no limit to the amount of acreage that the permittee may disturb within the permitted area of a Large Noncoal Mining Permit. There are also no crushing or other production limitations associated with the quarry so long as what is extracted is considered noncoal industrial minerals. Large Permits are, however, much more difficult to acquire, as far as paperwork is concerned. The PADEP requires much more information regarding the operations on the site. Fairly involved geotechnical work, along with a significant amount of water sampling, is required before the permit may be issued. These extra requirements increase the amount of time required to complete the applications, thus increasing the cost of the engineering.
Another issue involved in the quarry permitting process has to do with stormwater permitting. Sediment traps and other stormwater controls may be included under a NPDES General Permit (BMR GP-104) for Stormwater Discharges Associated with Mining Activities. Should the mine be located within a watershed designated as high-quality or exceptional value, an Individual NPDES permit will be required at an extra cost to the operator. It is standard practice to quarry in a way that causes stormwater to be directed internally within the permitted area. If the water cannot be directed towards the working face of the quarry, it should be directed to an appropriately sized sediment trap using berms or swales. It is important to size all erosion controls properly to ensure that the surrounding environment is kept free of any runoff associated with quarry activity. It is beneficial to employ an engineer who is skilled in this area.
One of the more fragile environments that may be located near a quarry are wetlands. Noncoal surface mining is restricted from occurring within 100 feet of any wetlands. Great care must be taken to protect any nearby wetlands from the fine particles produced by stone cutting and equipment moving within a quarry. Should these materials escape the quarry area during a storm event, the wetland could be irreparably harmed. Again, it is important to use correct Best Management Practices of erosion and sediment control to eliminate or reduce runoff from the site as a result of either stormwater or other causes. (Peruse the very informative article written by Eric R. Baird discussing the importance of wetlands on our blog at: https://jhacompanies.com/the-importance-of-wetland-areas/.)
There are several distance limitations wherein mining may not take place. A variance must be provided if a quarry falls within 300 feet of a dwelling or a commercial or industrial building. If the permittee would like to operate within this limitation, a building waiver must be obtained from the building owner (signed, notarized, and recorded) stating how close to the building the owner will allow mining activity to occur. A quarry operation may also not take place within 100 feet of the right-of-way of a public highway, a public park, a cemetery, or the bank of a perennial or intermittent stream. Should the operator deem it necessary to encroach upon any of these limitations, the PADEP may approve on a case-by-case basis. In this instance, the operator must prove that the health and safety of the surrounding environment and public will be protected as well as notifying the appropriate municipality and placing a legal advertisement notice in two separate newspapers for two successive weeks. Even if the PADEP does give a variance, the operator will still be held to limitations inside the setback.
Pictured above: This area had to be filled because it was too close to neighbors
It is also a good idea for operators to avoid crossing a stream with the quarry road. The heavy vehicle traffic on a quarry haul road can cause undue sedimentation, harming the environment. This is important if there is no existing culvert (a ford crossing) and especially if it is designated as a high quality or exceptional value stream. Stream Crossing Permits are required to cross any stream with a drainage area of more than 100 acres. These permits can be very involved and can make the quarry permitting process take significantly longer than expected. In some cases, a significantly large project may need to be undertaken in order to create an acceptable culvert or other structure to bridge over the crossing. The costs associated may be prohibitively expensive for a small operation. If such a crossing cannot be avoided, it is important to get a qualified engineer involved from the beginning in order to expedite the process.
One last area that the operator must remember is that the PADEP consists of people doing their job. The relationship between the PADEP and the operator on any given quarry operation is much closer than that of other sectors of small business and their regulating bodies. The quarries are regularly inspected by PADEP staff, and each part of a permit is reviewed by personnel within the Department. It is fairly simple to get in contact with an official on the phone if there are any Operator questions to be addressed. For better or worse, the attitude of the operator comes into play when the PADEP is providing support or working to solve a problem. In general, the harder the operator works to keep lines of communication open, the smoother the operation goes. While the PADEP does need to keep order and enforce regulations, they do want to see competent operators continue to mine efficiently and effectively. An operator who is willing to work with the PADEP will be less likely to be subject to violations over the course of the mining operation. When all the above is brought into consideration before an operator starts to dig, the operation will go as smoothly as possible; hopefully to the profit of both the mining company and landowner on whose property the work is taking place.
Isaac has spent the past 3.5 years permitting various bluestone quarries. His time began with 2 years of on-the-job training under the direct supervision of the President of the PA Bluestone Association, who had been permitting bluestone quarries for over 15 years. When Isaac isn’t at JHA, he can be found playing guitar, hunting, fishing, biking, hiking, tennis-ing and pretty much any other “ing” that happens in the outdoors with his wife Emily and two dogs.