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Scientists: Mountaintop Coal Mining Is Decimating Appalachia

Some of the nation’s top environmental scientists are calling on the Obama administration to end the destructive practice of mountaintop coal mining, saying that the environmental holocaust it creates is irreversible.

In an article appearing in the journal Science tomorrow, the scientists will present new evidence they say “unequivocally documents irreversible environmental impacts” associated with mountaintop removal, in which the tops of Appalachian peaks are blasted away and the debris pushed into nearby streams.

“The scientific evidence of the severe environmental and human impacts from mountaintop mining is strong and irrefutable,” Margaret Palmer, environmental scientist at the University of Maryland and lead author of the study, said in a statement previewing the article. “Its impacts are pervasive and long lasting and there is no evidence that any mitigation practices successfully reverse the damage it causes.”

Under the Obama administration, the Environmental Protection Agency has taken some steps to ensure that mountaintop coal projects don’t harm local waterways. But the message has been mixed, with the agency refusing some new permits, while approving others even when it means burying miles of mountain streams.

Appalachian lawmakers on and off Capitol Hill have been critical of that inconsistency, arguing that it leaves the mining industry — not to mention its thousands of employees — in a constant state of uncertainty.

Earlier this week, officials in West Virginia, site of some of the largest mountaintop operations, took a long step toward reining in the practice themselves. In an interview with The Charleston Gazette Wednesday, Randy Huffman, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, announced the state’s own moratorium on new mountaintop projects that impact streams. Huffman said that mixed signals from the Obama administration leave the state no choice but to craft its own stricter guidelines.

“If EPA’s not going to give us answers, we need to get our own,” Huffman said. “We need to get our own posture on this, and the end result is going to be a reduction in the size and scope of these operations.”

That’s a far cry from Huffman’s statement before Congress last summer, when he warned lawmakers that stricter regulations would threaten jobs in the state.

“The people that live in the steep, narrow terrain of southern West Virginia need the opportunities created by surface mining,” Huffman said at the time.

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