Despite renewed vows to protect Appalachian waterways from the ravages of mountaintop coal mining, the Environmental Protection Agency has recently authorized a number of pending mountaintop permits that will bury dozens of streams in the nation’s oldest mountain range. The move has left mining supporters cheering the federal endorsement of a popular extraction method, environmentalists wondering if the Obama administration truly intends to prioritize water quality concerns above those of the powerful coal industry, and both sides unsure what to expect of mountaintop permitting in the future.
After reviewing 48 pending Appalachian mining applications in recent weeks, the EPA has rejected just six over concerns that the projects would harm local water supplies. Most of the approved projects, EPA says, are surface mines, including some mountaintop removal projects. Combined, EPA concedes, the operations will fill scores of Appalachian valleys with mining waste — a process that will bury miles (some say hundreds of miles) of seasonal mountain streams with debris and sludge known to carry heavy metals and other toxins likely to wash to communities below. The news has caused many strip-mining opponents to worry that the agency has backtracked on earlier vows to put science and the health of ecosystems at the forefront of its permitting decisions.
“A wave of new mountaintop removal coal mines would represent a leap in the wrong direction,” Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope said in a statement. “With the bulldozers and explosives standing by in Appalachia, the Obama administration should take bold action to protect communities, streams and mountains before it’s too late.”
The process of mountaintop mining occurs when companies blast away the tops of mountains to get at the thin coal seams nestled inside. The unwanted rock and soil is pushed into adjacent valleys, many of which are home to tiny streams — the headwaters of larger bodies of water below. The strategy is popular for its efficiency: Not only does it allow the companies to scrape away more coal, but it also requires fewer workers to get the job done. The process places greater reliance on the productivities of dynamite and heavy machinery. Opponents argue that it comes at too high a price, ruining water supplies and causing flooding that threatens the communities nearby.
The debate is emblematic of the problems facing the young Obama administration as it tries to make good on promises to protect the environment by blunting the impact of the nation’s coal mining operations, while also being careful not to tread too heavily on the industry, which employs thousands of Appalachian-state workers and provides more than half the country’s electricity.
Indeed, roughly 45 percent of West Virginia’s coal is extracted using mountaintop mining techniques, according to a recent report from the National Mining Association. Throughout Appalachia, the process supports more than 14,000 mining jobs, NMA says.
Symptomatic of the administration’s dilemma have been a series of see-saw moves from the EPA this year over its approach to the controversial mining strategy. Under the Bush administration, the agency left permitting decisions largely to the discretion of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In March, however, EPA indicated it would play a much more active role in the process, announcing a halt to several pending surface-mine projects in West Virginia and Kentucky after finding that those operations would ruin local streams in violation of the Clean Water Act. Some environmentalists embraced the announcement as an end to mountaintop projects, but the agency was quick to clarify that its renewed scrutiny of mining applications would not prevent most of those projects from moving forward.
Evidence that the agency doesn’t intend to put an end to mountaintop mining arrived last Friday, when Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) announced that EPA had signed off on 42 of the 48 projects it’s reviewed this year. Of those, EPA says, 34 are surface operations, including instream, high wall, contour and mountaintop removal projects. Rahall, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, said it was “unfortunate” that the EPA’s original announcement was misinterpreted to be a moratorium on new mountaintop permits, arguing the importance of a quick and coordinated review process.
“[T]he coal industry cannot comply with a moving target,” Rahall said in a statement last week. “Having regulatory stability is vitally important to the industry, its workers, and those of us who reside in the coalfields of southern West Virginia. It is also equally important to environmental protection.”
Yet the announcement has left many environmentalists to wonder how EPA distinguished between the 42 projects it approved and the six it rejected. Indeed, if blowing the tops off of mountains and filling scores of valleys with toxic fill is not considered an environmental concern, many are curious what criteria the EPA are using to inform its decisions.
“How do you environmentally — safely — destroy a mountain, destroy a community?” asked Janet Keating, executive director of the West Virginia-based Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. Keating said selenium and other toxins leached from debris dumped in stream beds have produced fish with both eyes growing on the same side of their heads — and worse.
“People are literally dying, they’re being poisoned by coal waste,” she said. “Someone in charge needs to put a stop to this once and for all.”
And it’s not only opponents of mountaintop mining who are scratching their heads over precisely where the Obama administration’s EPA stands on the issue of mountaintop permits. Carol Raulston, spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, said the industry, while encouraged by the recent approvals, is as confused as environmentalists about the judgments behind them. “The process is still lacking in transparency,” Raulston said. “It’s not at all clear what the ultimate objective is.”
In a statement issued Friday, EPA spokeswoman Adora Andy said the agency is using “the best science” as it sifts through roughly 200 pending mining applications — including the 48 that have already been reviewed — that have been backlogged for legal reasons.
“EPA’s understanding is that none of the [42 approved] projects would permanently impact high value streams that flow year round,” Andy said. “By contrast, EPA has opposed six permits because they all would result in significant adverse impacts to high value streams, involve large numbers of valley fills, and impact watersheds with extensive previous mining impacts.”
That explanation has brought into question what exactly constitutes a “high value stream.” Jennifer Chavez, an attorney at Earth Justice, an environmental group, said that even waterways that flow only part of the year are vital to downstream habitats and communities, and should therefore be considered by EPA’s decision makers.
“We certainly don’t buy into the notion that one stream is more high value than another,” Chavez said. “You can’t just erase one part of a stream and claim that that part wasn’t performing any valuable function.”
Yet Chavez was quick to point out that, despite the recent approvals, it remains unclear where EPA will ultimately come down on mountaintop mining. “There’s clearly a lot of confusion here,” she said. “What EPA is intending to do is really up in the air.”
Cindy Rank, who chairs the mining committee at the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, echoed that message, saying that the 48 projects reviewed thus far are mostly small, less controversial operations. When EPA gets around to looking at the larger projects, she said, observers on all sides of the debate will get a clearer picture of how the agency intends to approach the contentious issue.
It wasn’t supposed to be so confusing. On the campaign trail, then-Sen. Obama had vowed, in no uncertain terms, to promote better ways to extract the coal on which the nation relies for most of its electricity.
“We’re tearing up the Appalachian Mountains because of our dependence on fossil fuels,” he said on a stop in Lexington, Ky., in 2007. “We have to find more environmentally sound ways of mining coal, than simply blowing the tops off mountains.”
Among the myriad criticisms from opponents of the mountaintop process are claims that it exacerbates flooding, as heavy rains run straight down the sides of deforested mountains rather than soaking into the spongy soils of wooded inclines. Indeed, many blame heavy flooding in southern West Virginia earlier this month on the mining and timber operations of the region.
Rahall, for his part, dismissed the notion that mining could have contributed to that episode, arguing in local papers that “there was nowhere in these narrow valleys that we have in southern West Virginia for the water to go but to overflow the banks.” This week, Rahall joined other West Virginia lawmakers in securing $2 million in federal help for flood repairs.
Rahall’s office did not respond to a call for comment.
In many respects, the debate is one pitting an environmentalist David against the dual Goliaths of the mining industry and the electric companies that rely on cheap coal. Rahall accepted nearly $22,000 from the coal mining industry in the 2008 election cycle, with West Virginia colleague Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) raking in more than $58,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In the coal country of Virginia, Rep. Rick Boucher (D), who recently secured enormous benefits for coal companies in the House climate change bill, accepted nearly $38,000 from the industry over that span, and Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Ky.) pulled in another $26,000, CRP found.
Across the Capitol, West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) accepted nearly $100,000 from coal mining companies in the 2008 cycle, according to CRP, while Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell (R) pulled in more than $164,000. West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D), a former coal broker, has also been a stalwart defender of the industry. Faced with that degree of spending and lawmaker support, mountaintop removal opponents say there’s little mystery why Appalachia’s mining companies seem more often than not to get their way.
“That’s why it’s happening,” said Keating of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. “The politics here are as dirty as they get.”