EPA's Lisa Jackson and the Science of Mountaintop Removal

"Certainly it is my belief as we learn more and more from outside scientists and inside scientists, we know that there are clear water quality impacts that come from filling in streams -- pretty intuitive -- and from the valley fills that result when you have to take this tremendous amount of overburden."  

                  -- Lisa P. Jackson, EPA Administrator

That is what the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee yesterday.  Jackson readily acknowledged the established body of evidence suggesting mountaintop removal coal mining harms water quality.

How can it not?  After all, this extreme form of strip mining involves the use of high explosives to blast Appalachian peaks and heavy machinery to scrape out thin coal seams from beneath the surface.  Tons of leftover dirt, debris and rubble then gets dumped down the side of the mountains, filling the valleys below and burying the streams.

That anyone would question the severity of environmental impact is what is astonishing.  Yet the coal industry -- and its legislative proponents -- continue to insist that the practice can be done in an environmentally responsible manner.  And our federal environmental agencies have permitted the decapitation of some 500 mountaintops -- not to mention the nearly 2,000 mountain streams that have so far been irrevocably contaminated or simply obliterated.

(Photo by J. Henry Fair)

Recently, a group of distinguished scientists forcefully came out against mountaintop removal, publishing a research study concluding that the impacts on stream and groundwater quality, biodiversity, and forest productivity were "pervasive and irreversible" and that current strategies for mitigation and restoration cannot compensate for the degradation.

It is likely that those are the "outside scientists" Jackson was referring to yesterday when she responded to a question from Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) regarding the agency's stance on a bill -- the Appalachia Restoration Act (S. 696) -- that would sharply curtail mountaintop-removal mining in central Appalachia.

"Our goal is not to eliminate surface mining of coal but to limit the practice of blowing off the top of a mountain and dumping the fill in streams," said Alexander, who co-sponsored the bill along with Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.).

Sen. Alexander and others in Congress should be commended for recognizing that mountaintop removal is a threat to Appalachia and for being willing to stand up and say so, notwithstanding the political pressure.  Protecting the Appalachians -- one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet -- should not be a partisan issue, so it is encouraging to see people of different political stripes work together to end this horrifying practice.

But what more does the EPA -- and the Obama administration -- need to know in order to take immediate appropriate steps to abolish the world's most destructive coal mining?

Because this has not yet happened, it is critical for leaders like Sen. Alexander -- and for the public -- to keep the pressure on EPA because the administration has the authority to reverse the fill rule that has authorized the Corps to permit valley fills under the Clean Water Act.

With all due respect to EPA Administrator Jackson, it's time to heed the scientists' call for action: end mountaintop removal.