EPA Greenlights More Mountaintop Mining Destruction in Appalachia

Oh brother, another Appalachian mountaintop is about to bite the dust. 

Just a week after NRDC issued a first-year assessment of President Obama's environmental accomplishments thus far -- including praise for the administration’s increased scrutiny of mountaintop removal coal mining -- the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decides to cut a deal with Patriot Coal Corp., opening the door for the Army Corps of Engineers to permit more mining destruction in Appalachia.

This mining operation approved by EPA yesterday was one of the 79 pending permits currently being held up for agency review over concerns about water quality impacts.  By giving the green light to the 600-acre Hobet 45 mine in Lincoln County, West Virginia, EPA is signing off on the coal company damaging approximately half the streams targeted by the original plan. 

As always, the Charleston Gazette provides in-depth coverage on this and the intrepid reporter Ken Ward, Jr. adds further insight by blogging some key questions to consider on the matter.

(Photo of Hobet mine by Vivian Stockman, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition)

To my mind, this latest action by EPA begs the question whether this is the last of such permitted destruction or the first of many more permits to make it through the regulatory review process after minor modifications that lessen their environmental impact.

On that score, it doesn't bode well that EPA took the opportunity to also announce that it is trying to work out another deal on another previously permitted mountaintop mine in West Virginia that the agency had moved to block only a few months ago due to significant water quality damage that would have result.  

These new developments represent a stunning shift backwards for environmentalists -- or maybe not -- depending on EPA's unknown next steps.  Unfortunately, while momentum has clearly swung toward ending mountaintop removal under President Obama (as evidenced by Sen. Robert Byrd's thunderclap statement on the controversy), the administration's regulatory actions on this issue have been marked by dramatic peaks and valleys that make it difficult to discern how the story will play out. 

NRDC's position, of course, is that it is time to put a stop to this veritable purple mountain tragedy in Appalachia -- and that calls for decisive, definitive action by federal environmental agencies to fulfill their stated mission.  When it comes to regulating the world's worst coal mining, you simply can't mend it, you must end it.  And we and our allies are in it to end it, no question about that.         

But at a basic level, the EPA's fundamental mission means that it should take immediate corrective steps to stop streams from being used as dumps for mining waste -- this can be done by revising Clean Water Act regulations that were gutted by the Bush administration at the behest of the coal industry.  NRDC and our partners want the Obama administration to begin a rulemaking to exclude waste, including waste from mountaintop removal coal mining, from being considered “fill material” that the Corps of Engineers can allow to be dumped in waters of the United States.

Now back to the Hobet mine approval...I'm told by folks on the ground that over the past four or five years, this massive mine-site grew from 1,000 acres to roughly 16,000 acres today.  As with other large-scale mining operations in Appalachia, coal companies break them up into different segments and usually seek permits for each phase.  This latest phase -- Hobet 45 -- had been delayed several years due to litigation by environmental groups seeking to prevent the project because it would permit direct impacts to some six miles of headwater streams, as well the contamination of downstream waters that remain clean, healthy and brimming with fish.

To move forward with the mining, EPA forced the coal company to make changes that the agency says will reduce stream impacts by more than 16,000 linear feet, among other things. (Here is EPA's letter to the company outlining the agreement.)  But this still means that the mining company will blast the mountaint to get the coal and destroy three miles of high quality streams in the process.

Understandably, Appalachian citizens and activists waging a David vs. Goliath battle against this extreme strip mining are disappointed in EPA's deal, as evidenced by a joint statement issued by several groups in response:

"Sadly, the coal industry’s undue influence over decision-makers has traded people’s health, communities, and water for profit," said Janet Keating, Executive Director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. "After all the coal has been mined, what kind of economic development can happen when the water is unfit to drink and people have been driven away?"

Added Cindy Rank of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, "Allowing this newest addition to the over 25 square miles of devastation at the Hobet complex to proceed makes one seriously question if EPA is truly interested in making a real difference."

Consider this:  Already some 500 Appalachian peaks have been decapitated, turning once-lush mountains into lifeless moonscapes.  To date, mining companies have flattened vast forests and buried approximately 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams beneath piles of toxic waste and debris.  Communities have been scarred by safety and health risks.

So then, with EPA's approval of the Hobet 45 mountaintop mine, another out-of-state coal company gets to plunder the treasure in Appalachia at the expense of the local communities that have to live with the devastation.  All Americans suffer the loss of another majestic peak in our country's oldest mountain range.  And the Appalachian region continues to be held back by a mono-industry that reaps short-term profits while delivering only more pollution and poverty long-term.