EPA Sharply Limits Mountaintop Mining
A mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia (Rick Eglinton/Toronto Star/ZUMA Press)
The White House on Thursday took a giant leap toward eliminating new mountaintop coal mining projects in the Appalachian states, issuing strict new guidelines designed to protect headwater streams by curbing the practice of dumping waste in neighboring valleys.
Announcing the changes, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson said the guidelines are intended to make the standards governing new mountaintop projects “clear and consistent,” following a series of EPA decisions over the past year that stakeholders on all sides of the debate found contradictory.
[Environment1] Yet the practical effect of the new standards — which will require mining operations to control levels of toxins in nearby streams — will be to minimize, if not outright preclude, the dumping of mining waste in valleys below the mines. Because the coal industry maintains that most mountaintop projects wouldn’t be worth the additional cost of trucking the debris to more distant dumping sites, the guidelines — if properly enforced — could end most new mountaintop projects before they ever begin.
The move drew immediate criticism from the coal mining industry, which views the new environmental protections as a threat to profits and jobs. But it received high praise from one of the most powerful lawmakers in Appalachia, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), a one-time defender of mountaintop mining who more recently has turned a critical eye toward the practice.
At issue is the mining technique known as mountaintop removal, in which companies use dynamite and draglines to blast and scrape away Appalachian peaks in order to access the coal seams within. In the process, the trees, soil, rock and other debris resting atop the coal are often pushed into adjacent valleys, many of which hold tiny streams forming the headwaters of larger bodies of water below.
The technique has been attractive to coal companies, which save money by eliminating trucking needs (valleys are nearby) and labor costs (dynamite is cheap). But it’s also ravaged neighboring communities by poisoning wells and waterways, contaminating air, killing off wildlife and flooding nearby homes. The EPA estimates that nearly 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried already by mountaintop projects.
The new EPA guidelines are designed to gauge the health of nearby streams based on their levels of conductivity, which is a good indicator of water’s purity. The runoff from Appalachian mines tends to contain toxins like magnesium, sulfate, bicarbonate, and potassium — all ions that raise conductivity levels. The higher the conductivity, the tougher it is for aquatic life to survive.
Under the new EPA guidelines, mining projects expected to raise conductivity levels of nearby streams above 500 micro-siemens per centimeter — five times the normal level — will be rejected. That level has been shown to harm aquatic life, Jackson said, citing “considerable peer reviewed data.” Effectively, the EPA has attached hard numerical standards to environmental protections more vaguely outlined in the Clean Water Act.
Jackson maintained that the intent of the guidelines is not to create a blanket ban on all new mountaintop removal projects. “This is not about ending coal mining,” she told reporters on a conference call Thursday. “This is about ending coal mining pollution.”
Still, the EPA chief also said that there are “no or very few valley fills that will meet standards like this.”
Indeed, EPA estimates that the Spruce No. 1 Mine near Charleston — at 2,300 acres, the largest mountaintop project ever proposed in West Virginia — would send conductivity levels of nearby streams as high as 2,400 micro-siemens per centimeter. For that reason, the agency last week proposed to veto the project.
No one has to explain to the coal industry that the new guidelines are a threat to the lucrative mountaintopping business. The National Mining Association, a trade group, issued a statement Thursday blasting the EPA’s new rules for what it called a failure “to give greater thought to the impact on jobs, affordable electricity and U.S. steel production.”
“EPA continues to point to ’new science’ that has been found to be both flawed and limited in its findings,” the NMA wrote.
On the other side of the debate have been environmental and community groups, which have fought a decades-long battle against mountaintop removal. In their eyes, the EPA’s new guidelines were a godsend after years watching the agency look away as mine after mine was approved.
The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, a West Virginia-based advocacy group, applauded the EPA for “finally listening to scientists.” The Rainforest Action Network cheered the agency for “finally flexing its full authority under the Clean Water Act.” And Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said the policy represents nothing short of “the most significant administrative action ever taken to address mountaintop removal coal mining.”
The new standards will apply to all mountaintop operations proposed in the future, as well as the nearly 80 pending mountaintop permits the EPA is currently reviewing. The guidelines are specific to the Appalachian states only. “You can’t take this data and apply it outside the region,” Jackson said. But she broached the possibility that the standards could also apply to non-mining projects — things like roads — within the Appalachian states.
The guidelines take effect immediately, although the EPA is accepting public comments and could alter the standards based on that input.
For the Obama administration, it’s been a long road to today’s announcement. On the campaign trail, Obama vowed to end the practice of mountaintop mining in favor of less destructive methods. But the coal industry is a powerful force — and a strong economic engine — in Appalachia. And it has the ear of some of the more influential figures on Capitol Hill, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. Faced with those competing pressures, the EPA last year took steps to rein in mountaintop removal, but also issued more than 40 surface mining permits, threatening dozens of Appalachian streams.
At least one powerful Appalachian lawmaker was happy about the EPA’s move to define the permitting standards. The 92-year-old Byrd — who spent a lifetime defending the coal industry that practically defines West Virginia’s economy — said Thursday that he was “pleased” that the EPA took “very seriously” his concerns about the need for clear standards to govern the permitting process.
“Today’s announcement,” Byrd said, “will hopefully now have everyone reading off the same page.”