MWA files “Unsuitable for Mining” Petition to protect the Laurel Highlands

On January 22, 2024, MWA filed a petition with the Department of Environmental Protection to request that they designate an area of Donegal Township in Westmoreland County as “unsuitable for surface mining operations.” If successful, the petition would limit or prevent mining for almost 11,000 acres in this economically and ecologically critical area (pictured in the map below).

Use the tool in the upper left corner of the map to show the study area, petition area, and mining boundaries.

Hydrology: MWA contracted with Gordon Johnson, a hydrogeologist who has worked for both the mining industry and for environmental groups. Johnson prepared a report on the impacts of mining in this area and found that there is a 90% chance a large underground mine could result in:

  • Permanently reducing the surface flow in the upper tributaries of Fourmile Run by 25%
  • Overwhelming the tributaries of Jacobs Creek with almost twice as much water
  • Damaging the water quality of Jacobs Creek, Fourmile Run, and possibly Indian Creek
  • Dewatering aquifers by 50%, putting over 100 private water supplies at risk

Read the full hydrogeology report here.

Legal Background: For an area to be deemed “unsuitable for mining,” a petition must show the area meets at least one of five criteria. 

  • One of the criteria is “mandatory,” meaning if the condition is found, the area must be deemed unsuitable. The mandatory criteria is that acid mine discharges would occur from mining and the report found AMD is more than 50% likely in the petition area. 
  • The others are “discretionary” and the DEP can decide whether or not to designate if those conditions are present. 

Economic Impacts: According to this report, mining threatens the Laurel Highlands’ 21 watersheds, which generate $3.7 billion annually in ecosystem service benefits.

  • The headwaters of Jacobs Creek and Fourmile Run, which are at risk of damages, are valued at an  estimated $378,157,073.00 per year.
    • If just 10% of this value is lost from water degradation over 19 years of mining, it would mean a total loss of $718,498,433.00 for the region.
  • However, this figure does not include losses to residents’ health and property values. A West Virginia University paper describes that properties within a quarter mile of mining-impaired streams experienced a 12.8% value discount.
    • MWA estimates there are roughly 660 parcels within a quarter mile of streams that could be at risk.

Ecologic Impacts: The petition area has several popular fishing sites, such as the 90-acre Donegal Lake owned by the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission.

  • Petition-area waters are home to both stocked and native trout, plus other species of concern. If mining occurred, it could destroy the delicate aquatic habitat, devastate fish populations, and possibly impair other sensitive native fauna.