Expect Big Post-Labor Day Announcement on Mountaintop Removal from Obama Administration

Everyone engaged in the fight over mountaintop removal is anticipating a big announcement next week (possibly Tuesday or Wednesday) by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

NRDC and our grassroots partners want to put a stop -- once and for all -- to this extreme strip mining method, which involves clear-cutting forest cover, blasting rock and rubble with high explosives, scraping out thin coal seams with giant drag lines and heavy machinery, and then dumping leftover dirt and toxic debris into adjacent valleys, thereby polluting and burying the streams below. 

First, a quick recap:  

Back in March, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson weighed into the controversy surrounding the federal government's routine rubber-stamping of permits resulting in the destruction of hundreds of Appalachian peaks by coal companies.  She sent shockwaves by exerting her agency's authority to hold up two pending mountaintop removal permit applications to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over concerns about harmful water quality impacts.  (Three additional permits were rejected the following month.) 

Although a welcome development, EPA's action turned out to be a mere baby step.  Unlike we had hoped, the agency made clear that it was not halting, holding or placing a moratorium on all mountaintop mining permit applications.  But in a radio interview in April, Administrator Jackson reiterated her agency's newfound commitment to closely reviewing each and every mining permit "with an eye towards tracking down and identifying any significant impact on water and water quality", and wouldn't hesitate to reject permits if necessary.  (A few days later, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar got in the act by moving to revoke the Bush administration notorious "buffer zone rule" change under which coal companies now legally use rivers and streams as dumping grounds for mining waste.  Unfortunately, a federal court later rebuffed Salazar's attempt.) 

Alas, momentum shifted in May, when the EPA abruptly and inexplicably approved 42 of 48 pending mountaintop removal permits in Appalachia.  The following month brought a mixed message, as Obama administration officials announced "unprecedented steps to reduce the environmental impacts of mountaintop coal mining" in the six Appalachian states of Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.  More promise than policy, administration pledged to increase permit scrutiny and enhance coordination among among EPA, Interior, and the Corps.  Shortly afterwards, EPA published a list of 108 pending permit applications from mining companies seeking to conduct mountaintop removal operations.

Here's a helpful timeline courtesy of Ken Ward, which boils down to this:

  • Under the multi-agency agreement, EPA requested additional information on each of these 108 permits, and committed to spending to 45 days assessing potential environmental impacts, identifying those projects about which it has "concerns," and recommending actions to miminize or remedy potential environmental damage.  The clock on this review runs out on the day after Labor Day.    
  • At that point EPA is supposed to provide the Corps with this list and also to release it to the public on the web. Then, within 14 days, each EPA region is supposed to identify to EPA HQ those permit applications "raising concerns"  and those not raising concerns.  Any permit not on the list can be issued immediately by the Corps. 
  • Beyond this process there remain other requirements and requisite timelines. But the bottom-line is that EPA is expected soon to release a list which in essence likely will show which of the 100+ pending mountaintop removal permit applications may be approved, which will be held up for further review, and possibly which cannot proceed at all due to environmental impact concerns.

[UPDATE: During a public radio interview last Thursday, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson touched on mountaintop removal.  She noted that EPA science confirms the "extreme degradation" of aquatic ecosystems from valley fills.  She reiterated her agency's commitment to closely review 84 mining permits currently on hold to determine if they should be allowed to proceed under the Clean Water Act.  Jackson also admitted that she has only seen pictures of mountaintop removal and has yet to visit Appalachia to see it in person.  Despite this, she pledged to put science, not politics, first when it comes to this issue.  To hear the discussion, tune in at about the 15-minute mark of the interview.]

So, the clock is winding down to a decision by EPA that may well determine where the Obama administration stands on regulating mountaintop removal.  NRDC's position is that the nation's premier environmental protection agency should stop trying to mend the practice; EPA should end it.