At Lunch with EPA's Lisa Jackson: Mountaintop Removal on the Menu

As a member of the National Press Club, I was pleased to see that Lisa Jackson, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, spoke at a press club luncheon earlier this week.  She opened her speech with an "Oscars" reference, noting that even though Avatar didn't win Best Picture, "the movie with the environmental message has actually made a lot of money."

Her point was clear: the popularity of this film is just more evidence that the American people deeply care about protecting the environment and they expect the EPA to fulfill that mission.  

While the film's planet in peril may be fictional, the immoral plundering of Pandora's natural resources at the expense of the local populace by a greedy corporation is reminiscent of very real pollution problems happening here on earth.  For example, as I've blogged previously, it's easy to see parallels between the heedless extraction of 'unobtanium' in the movie and mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia.  In her speech, Ms. Jackson addressed that very issue.  

First, she debunked the false choice between protecting the environment and protecting jobs, making a strong and detailed case for why environmental degradation is in fact an obstacle to economic prosperity.  Indeed, she said, a clean environment ensures a strong economy.

"I've worked in environmental protection for 20 years," Jackson said.  "I've seen meaningful environmental efforts met time and again with predictions of lost jobs and lost revenues.  Lobbyists and business journals have done such a good job of engraining it into our way of thinking that many of us believe, sadly, that we must choose between our environment and the economy."

(Zeb Mountain, Tennessee)

During the Q&A following her remarks, she was asked about EPA's plans for addressing mountaintop removal through tougher regulations.  Jackson stated that her agency is currently in the process of reviewing all pending mountaintop mining permits.  She acknowledged that, "This is a practice that is, you know, quite emotional for many people in America."  She explained that with strip mining in the Appalachian mountains, "the practice that’s most cost-efficient to simply blow off the top, level it, remove that thin seam [of coal].  And then, all that rubble from the top of the mountain gets put into valleys and, almost inevitably, fills streams."  Then she got to the point:

"What we’re finding at EPA is that the process of filling the streams has a detrimental impact on water quality.  And, as you might expect, the more you fill, the more likely you're going to see problems with water quality.  I’m really proud of the fact that EPA has stepped forward and said, 'We’re going to review each and every one of these outstanding permits to try to minimize, if not end, any environmental degradation to the water.'"

However, she said that EPA "doesn’t regulate mining," adding, "We fight for clean water under the Clean Water Act.  So, our role is limited to ensuring that these projects, if they are approved, do not have a detrimental impact on clean water.  We’ll continue to do that."

Jackson also stated that she promised Senator Byrd (D-WV) that her agency is working hard to provide "clarity of guidance" to coal companies that are seeking mining permits in the region.  In other words, it appears that Jackson is offering a mixed message on mountaintop removal.  While recognizing the obvious significant detrimental environmental impacts -- especially on water quality -- it seems that EPA is seeking ways to "minimize" the ecological damage rather than halt this most extreme strip mining.

As for how to do this, the EPA had planned to release new guidelines this week, but reportedly delayed the announcement after some details of the agency plan were leaked to state mining regulators.  In addition, word is that other federal agencies charged with direct oversight of mining -- the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement -- are not so keen to crack down on coal companies despite the Obama administration's big announcement last year that it was going to take "unprecedented steps" to reduce the environmental damage from mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia.

On the one hand it's clear that EPA, led by Lisa Jackson, is beginning to finally fully understand just how horrible mountaintop removal is for the environment and public health in Appalachia.  And it is a welcome change to see the agency begin to accept its charge to take corrective steps to curtail the problem.  On the other hand, EPA definitely can and must do much more on this matter and that includes exercizing its full regulatory authority to block every single mining permit application that seeks to "remove" America's oldest mountaintops and dump the waste into waterways. 

It's unfortunate that EPA's sister agencies haven't accepted their roles to put protecting the environment over protecting the profits of coal companies that are hell-bent on plundering Appalachia.  Certainly, more pressure must be brought to bear on them as well.

Ultimately, what is clear is that mountaintop removal cannot be regulated.  It must be abolished.  Otherwise, our own planet -- and especially the people who call Appalachia home -- will continue to live in peril.  All the more reason for people to act now by sending a message to Congress to pass pending bi-partisan legislation that will effectively put an end to mountaintop removal.