Now that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has made it clear that mountaintop removal coal mining poses a severe threat to the environment -- most notably to water quality -- in Appalachia, the fate of this abominable practice appears to rest in the hands of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
You see, coal companies conduct mountaintop removal operations today with the blessing of the Corps, the federal agency responsible for issuing Clean Water Act permits for discharges of "fill material" into the nation's waterways. For too long, the Corps has routinely "rubber-stamped" permits for these projects, which involve the dumping of tons of mining waste into valley streams.
One mechanism by which the Corps traditionally authorized these mines was Nationwide Permit (NWP 21), a fast-track Clean Water Act permit for "fills" associated with certain coal mining activities. According to my colleague Jon Devine, an attorney and water law expert, a nationwide permit is one kind of "general" permit that is only supposed to be used when the environmental impacts are minimal. One could hardly consider burying headwater streams with coal mine waste "minimal," and thereby worthy of "streamlined" approval.
Fortunately, in March a federal court ruled against this type of permit (in case brought by NRDC and other partners). As a result of that decision, the Corps is now seeking public comment on its plan to suspend and then modify NWP 21 to prohibit its use in Appalachia. Instead, coal companies would have to apply for "individual" permits, which could only be granted on a case-by-case basis. More importantly, this process would provide for public input on proposed projects -- presumably making it tougher for companies to receive quick, blanket approvals for mountaintop removal.
The Corps is conducting a series of public hearings on this matter throughout Appalachia. Unfortunately, the coal industry is sowing fear and confusion amongst its work force to gin up massive crowds of angry miners to shout down concerned citizens who support reforming the permit process to be more protective of the environment.
You can help your fellow citizens in the coalfields by taking a moment to comment on the Corps' proposal -- simply click here. The deadline for comments is Monday, October 26th.
If you can spare the time to comment and are in the market for suggested points to make to the Corps, here are a couple:
- We need to end mountaintop removal. The Corps must stop permitting waste dumps in Appalachian streams and other water bodies. Doing so means reversing the Bush administration's 2002 "fill rule," which classified a host of solid wastes, including mining wastes, as "fill material" that the Corps could allow to be placed in the nation's waters. The Obama administration should begin the process of undoing this terrible rule right away.
- In the meantime, the Corps should end the use of NWP 21 altogether. The permit should never have been issued, given the enormity of the impacts and the inability of so-called "mitigation" efforts to reliably ameliorate those harms. It therefore should not be allowed to be used in any fashion; the court ruled that the permit was unlawful, and halting it in Appalachia is only a partial response.
With new direction coming from a new administration, there is genuine hope in the coalfields that mountaintop removal may be on its way out. But your help is urgently needed to make this change come true. Thank you in advance for taking a moment to help save the Appalachians from the travesty of mountaintop removal coal mining.