To the delight of all of us who oppose mountaintop removal coal mining -- and to the chagrin of Arch Coal company -- the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today issued its “proposed determination” to block the Clean Water Act permit for the Spruce No. 1 Mine, the largest mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history. EPA made its initial move to reject this project back in October by taking the unprecedented step of invoking its regulatory authority to veto a previously issued CWA permit. The agency did so due to concerns about massive water quality impacts expected to result from a series of mega-valley fills. Based on today's action, the agency's concerns persist.
Over on Coal Tattoo, Ken Ward cites EPA's rationale:
EPA has reason to believe that the Spruce No. 1 Mine, as currently authorized, could result in unacceptable adverse effects to fish and wildlife resources. EPA is concerned that the project could result in unacceptable adverse effects on the aquatic ecosystem, particularly to fish and wildlife resources and water quality. EPA is also concerned that the project may have cumulative adverse impacts. EPA believes that the Spruce No. 1 project, in conjunction with numerous other mining operations either under construction or proposed for the Coal River sub-basin, may contribute to the cumulative loss of water quality, aquatic and forest resources. The Coal River sub-basin is already heavily mined and demonstrates impacts associated with surface coal mining.
EPA's press release quotes Regional Administrator Shawn Garvin:
"Coal, and coal mining, is part of our nation’s energy future, and for that reason EPA has made repeated efforts to foster dialogue and find a responsible path forward. But we must prevent the significant and irreversible damage that comes from mining pollution — and the damage from this project would be irreversible. This recommendation is consistent with our broader Clean Water Act efforts in Central Appalachia. EPA has a duty under the law to protect water quality and safeguard the people who rely on these waters for drinking, fishing and swimming."
Great news! So, does this mean the proposed mountaintop mine is dead? Not yet. EPA now has to seek public comment on its proposal to revoke the permit. Possible outcomes include: (1) withdraw the permit (2) restrict the permit or (3) deem the permit to be sufficient for approval. The only suitable course of action in our mind is, of course, option #1. During the upcoming comment period, we'll be encouraging folks to weigh in with the agency, so stay tuned.
Dave Roberts at Grist provides some good perspective on political reactions from the WV congressional delegation, pointing out how Sen. Byrd appears to see the writing on the wall for coal.
Bottom line: The EPA, by taking the unprecedented step toward exerting its regulatory authority to veto a previously permitted mountaintop removal mine, is showing signs of backbone on this issue. The agency has already acknowledged the science confirming that this extreme form of strip mining is incompatible with environmental protection. What EPA needs to do now is finally recognize that when it comes to this practice, there's no way to mitigate the damage by tweaking the regulations. You can't mend mountaintop removal, you have to end it.
As for NRDC, we prefer our Appalachian Mountains preserved, not removed.