EPA Inexplicably Greenlights WV Mountaintop Removal Permit

Maybe the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should change its acronym from EPA to WTF.

Before getting to the bad news, let's first recap the positive momentum against mountaintop removal coal mining over the past few months:

  • April 1:  EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announces new, stronger water quality standards that she insists will essentially zero out "valley fill" permits, making it tougher than ever for coal companies to secure permits for mountaintop removal operations in Appalachia. 
  • April 12:  U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), co-sponsor of a bi-partisan bill in Congress that would effectively end mountaintop removal coal mining, publishes an OpEd in The Tennessean reiterating the case for stopping the senseless destruction of the Appalachians.
  • April 27:  TIAA CREF -- one of the nation’s largest financial services companies --removes the utility TECO from ts “socially responsible” mutual fund portfolio because it's coal mining subsidiary continues to pillage Kentucky via mountaintop removal.  More significantly, the KLD Corporation -- the firm that creates the overall socially responsible index upon which TIAA-CREF relies for its initial “screen” on investments -- also drops TECO for the same reason. 
  • May 6:  U.S. Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) -- God rest his soul -- once again denounces mountaintop removal.  In a blistering newspaper commentary, he writes:  "The industry of coal must also respect the land that yields the coal, as well as the people who live on the land.  If the process of mining destroys nearby wells and foundations, if blasting and digging and relocating streams unearths harmful elements and releases them into the environment causing illness and death, that process should be halted and the resulting hazards to the community abated."
  • May 19:  NRDC's Music Saves Mountains benefit councert in Nashville features the biggest gathering of singers and songwriters to raise awareness of -- and to fight against -- mountaintop removal.  Prior to the show, Dave Matthews rails against the practice in an exclusive interview backstage.
  • May 25:  Our grassroots partner Alliance for Appalachia launches a campaign to raise funds for a powerful commercial to air on national television, which features voiceover by actress Ashley Judd.  (Please donate to this effort.)  A few weeks ago Ashley came to Washington, D.C. to deliver a rousing speech against mountaintop removal at the National Press Club.
  • June 17:  The Army Corps of Engineers suspends Nationwide 21 permits, which means coal companies can no longer expect streamlined permits to dump mining waste in Appalachian waterways. 
  • June 22:  New analysis by Downstream Strategies -- funded in part by NRDC -- confirms that the coal industry costs West Virginia and Tennessee far more than it contributes to state coffers.  These studies -- on the heels of NRDC's own recent study debunking the myth of mountaintop removal reclamation -- further show that this extreme strip mining is a is a net negative for Appalachia's local economies.  

All this brings us to the perplexing decision last week by EPA to recommend approval by the Corps of Engineers of a permit sought by Coal-Mac (subsidiary of Arch Coal) for the Pine Creek Surface Mine in Logan County, West Virginia.  So much for EPA's supposedly hard-line water protection standards issued in April which promised tougher oversight of mountaintop removal. 

The 760-acre mine on Pine Creek will fill three valleys, covering over 120 acres and destroying over 2 miles of streams.  It is expected that the Corps will quickly approve the Pine Creek permit, per EPA's sign-off. 

Jeff Biggers blogs more details on this travesty and cites a heart-wrenching letter from Lorelei Scarbro, an Appalachian resident and activist who is one of the local leaders in the fight to save what's left of wild and wonderful West Virginia from rapacious strip mining.  Here is an excerpt of Lorelei's letter to Lisa Jackson in the wake of EPA's permit approval:

I have been involved in the battle to stop, not regulate, mountaintop removal coal mining since the coal mine moved in next door to my home at the base of Coal River Mountain in Rock Creek, WV.  I watched my husband die of black lung after 35 years as an underground union coal miner.  I watch as people I love get sicker each day from contaminated water after raising their family in Prenter Hollow, WV.

I have left my very peaceful home 3 miles up in Rock Creek and traveled to DC many times in the past 2 years to help the powers that be to really see the face of coal.  I hope that by telling the people on Capitol Hill how the decisions they make affect the lives of the people in the mountain communities they might begin to see us as valuable.  Too often we are treated like collateral damage or just the price of doing business. 

I was on the call on April 1 when you released the guidance for conductivity levels and I was very excited when I heard you say, “You’re talking about no or very few valley fills that are going to be able to meet standards like this.”  The release of this guidance and your words brought hope to many people that long ago lost it.  I have been very thankful for all of the steps this EPA has taken to improve life in the mountain communities of Appalachia, but I was heartbroken when I saw the decision on Pine Creek.  Although I live about 1 ½ hours from this area I stand with the citizens there and I fear that this is just the beginning of many more permit releases. 

We believed you when you spoke about “zeroing out valley fills”.  Where I am from, sometimes all you have is your word.  People here have historically made life altering decisions on nothing more than a handshake and their word.  I am a 54 year old widow of a coal miner and the most important thing to me is clean drinking water for my grandchildren.  I don’t believe that is possible if we continue to destroy and cover head water streams in Appalachia.  Once again, I have lost hope.  Please don’t let this be the final word on Pine Creek Surface Mine.