Thus far, the Obama administration's approach to the controversial practice of mountaintop removal coal mining has been...shall we say...herky-jerky. Some days we're up, as when EPA announced in the spring that all such mining permits are on hold until further review. Other days we're down, as when EPA green-lighted 42 of 48 mountaintop removal permits this summer. As we anxiously await the agency's forthcoming announcement of the regulatory fate of more than 100 other pending mining permits, the pendulum has swung momentarily in a positive direction with the agency's latest action:
The EPA has moved to stop one of the largest mountaintop removal permits ever issued in West Virginia, citing concerns about severe environmental damage.
As reported by the Charleston Gazette, the EPA informed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last week that it wants to halt a permit for a Mingo Logan Coal Co. operation in Logan County. The Spruce Fork No. 1 permit, which the Corps originally issued back in January 2007, covers 2,278 acres and authorizes "valley fills" that would bury and destory more than 40,000 linear feet of streams under mining waste. The project has been held up by litigation by environmental groups.
In its letter to the Corps, EPA says that new data collected since the permit was issued "have revealed that downstream water quality impacts have not been adequately addressed by the permit, especially in light of clear evidence that effluent from valley fill sedimentation ponds is very likely to elevate conductivity and thus negatively affect healthy aquatic communities." The EPA also noted that the mine is located in the Little Coal River watershed, which has the largest number of impaired stream miles in the state's coalfields, primarily due to mining. EPA's chief concern with this particular project -- as with all mountaintop removal mining -- is water quality impacts.
Frankly, the agency has good reason to be concerned. With this extreme form of strip mining, the waste rock, rubble, dirt and other debris that results from blasting gets push off the cleared ridge-top and unceremoniously dumped down the mountainside. Not only does the hyrdology change due to the drastic topographic and vegetative alterations of the landscape, but the streams flowing down the mountainsides and through the valleys below disappear. Burying waterways under tons of mining waste simply obliterates them.
Although coal companies insist that natural streams destroyed by mining can be restored or re-engineered later, the fact is that funtionally these waterways streams no longer exist after mining. According to scientific experts, there is little evidence to support the claim that streams buried by mountaintop mining can be rebuilt. However, up to now that hasn't stopped industry from routinely getting the benefit of doubt from federal regulators, resulting time and time again in permits issued by the U.S. Corps of Engineers that allow rivers, creeks and streams to be filled with waste from mountaintop removal mining.
In response to the EPA's letter, the federal judge overseeing litigation against the Spruce Fork permit has granted a request by the Corps for a 30-day stay in the permit's legal proceedings while the agency considers EPA's concerns.
Now we wait -- and hope -- that EPA applies the same clear logic, consistent scientific standards, and common-sense environmental commitment when it comes to all the other mining permits currently under its review. Nothing less than the fate of Appalachia is at stake.