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EPA Signals Stricter Mining Rules

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2009/06/mountaintop-image.jpgMountaintop removal site (Photo by: JW Randolph)

The Obama administration on Thursday announced steps to alleviate the environmental damage done by mountaintop coal mining in the Appalachian states, vowing stricter scrutiny of proposed mines, stronger oversight of existing projects and — further in the future — new regulations to protect local waterways and wildlife.

But the new efforts will not prohibit the practice of topping mountains, nor will they include a review of dozens of new strip-mining permits approved by the Environmental Protection Agency in recent weeks. The news has left environmentalists cautiously optimistic that the White House will rein in the destructive mining method, but also wary that it hasn’t yet gone far enough.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

“This is a necessary but inadequate action by the Obama administration,” Vernon Haltom, co-director of West Virginia-based Coal River Mountain Watch, said in a statement. “Without a significant change in policy, mining companies will continue to destroy our mountains and bury our streams on the Obama administration’s watch. They need to put a stop to this, and they’re not doing so.”

Mountaintop mining refers to the process in which companies literally blast away the peaks of mountains in order to expose the seams of coal buried within. The resulting farrago of rock, soil and debris is pushed into adjacent valleys, many of which contain tiny streams — the headwaters of larger streams below.

The coal industry and its congressional backers argue that the process is necessary both to maximize extraction and to create much-needed jobs in an area of the country where employment is relatively spare. But environmentalists and community activists contend that the damage to water systems and wildlife habitats — not to mention the flooding exacerbated by stripping the mountainsides bare — isn’t worth the economic benefit to the region.

The issue has been problematic for the young Obama administration, which is trying to honor early vows to rein in mountaintop mining without hobbling a powerful industry that generates more than half the country’s electricity and creates thousands of jobs in Appalachia.

Under the policy changes proposed Thursday — which arrived as a “memorandum of understanding” between the EPA, Interior Department and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — regulators would examine each new Appalachian strip-mine proposal on a case-by-case basis to determine the projects’ effects on water quality. (Officials said the evaluation criteria will be released publicly to add transparency to the decision-making process.) Currently, such mines may be approved using a generic national permit that was adopted to expedite the application process, but also allows for a shallower examination of environmental impacts.

“Our announcement today reaffirms EPA’s fundamental responsibility for protecting the water quality and environmental integrity of streams, rivers, and wetlands under the Clean Water Act,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in a statement. “Getting this right is important to coalfield communities that count on a livable environment, both during mining and after coal companies move to other sites.”

Administration officials are also hoping to put the teeth back into a 1983 law dictating that no mining activity can occur within 100 feet of streams if that activity would harm water quality. The Bush administration, in one of its final acts, scrapped that rule, allowing coal companies to dump their mining waste anywhere, including streams, as long as they could offer an explanation why such dumping was unavoidable. One reason companies could offer was that alternative disposal methods, like trucking the waste out, would be too expensive.

David Hayes, deputy secretary of the Interior Department, said the Bush-era rule change is “bad public policy and also legally defective.” Agency officials are awaiting a judge’s ruling in a lawsuit surrounding that rule, and then they’ll reapply the original 1983 guidelines, Hayes said during a press call with reporters.

“The rule itself is a good rule,” he said. “We think it should be applied more strictly than it has been, [and] we’ll be issuing guidance to that effect.”

Looking further ahead, he said the administration will propose new guidelines to replace the 1983 rule altogether. Meanwhile, the White House will be more active than previous administrations in enforcing the existing regulations.

But after decades watching federal regulators do little while the Appalachians crumbled under mining projects, many environmentalists remain skeptical. “You can write rules and regulations from now to forever, but unless there’s strong enforcement none of it’s going to matter,” said Janet Keating, executive director of the West Virginia-based Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. “We don’t need more rules and regulations and memorandums of understanding. What we need is real world enforcement … Are we supposed to celebrate because they decided to do their jobs?”

The policy changes are “a reason for optimism,” Keating added, “but we’ll believe it when we see it.”

Lending some merit to that skepticism, Bob Sussman, EPA senior policy counsel, told reporters Wednesday that 42 Appalachian mining projects — most of them surface mines — recently approved by the agency will proceed as planned. EPA would “like to close the book” on those projects, he said.

Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, maintained that, while the administration recognizes the environmental threat posed by mountaintop mining, the White House has no authority to ban the practice outright. “It’s allowed under current federal law,” Sutley said.

Meanwhile, representatives of the mining industry are also wary of the changes, though for much different reasons. Carol Roulston, spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, said the group is “concerned that this adds further uncertainty to the permitting process.” Mining companies are also worried about the administration’s vow to reassert its authority over state regulators. “States have pretty much been taken out of the process,” Roulston said.

The White House on Thursday also vowed a new initiative to promote economic development in the Appalachian states, focusing on green jobs to replace those that might be lost as a consequence of tighter regulation of the coal industry. That effort, according to local activists, is long overdue.

“This region has paid a tremendous price to industrialize this country,” Keating said of marks left by the coal industry. “If we’re going to revitalize someplace [with green jobs], what better place to start than right here?”

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