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EPA Takes Another Look at Mountaintop Removal: Is the Assessment Lens Free of Coal Dust?

March 30, 2009

EPA Halts Hundreds of Mountaintop Mining Permits

by Dina Cappiello

WASHINGTON – The Environmental Protection Agency put hundreds of mountaintop coal-mining permits on hold Tuesday, saying it wants to evaluate the projects’ impact on streams and wetlands.

[A mountaintop removal coal mining site at Kayford Mountain, W.Va. In the controversial practice, forests are clear-cut and holes are drilled to blast apart rock, as massive machines scoop coal from the exposed seams. The rock and dirt left behind is dumped into adjacent valleys, affecting streams and waterways.  (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)]A mountaintop removal coal mining site at Kayford Mountain, W.Va. In the controversial practice, forests are clear-cut and holes are drilled to blast apart rock, as massive machines scoop coal from the exposed seams. The rock and dirt left behind is dumped into adjacent valleys, affecting streams and waterways. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

The decision, announced by EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, targets a controversial practice that allows coal mining companies to dump waste from mountaintop mining into streams and wetlands. 

It could delay 150-250 permits being sought by companies wanting to begin blasting mountaintops to access coal.

Those permits are issued by the Army Corps of Engineers, an agency that has been criticized by environmental groups and has been sued for failing to thoroughly evaluate the environmental impact of mountaintop removal.

Under the Clean Water Act, companies cannot discharge rock, dirt and other debris into streams unless they can show that it will not cause permanent damage to waterways or the fish and other wildlife that live in it.

Last month, a three-judge appeals panel in Richmond, Va., overturned a lower court’s ruling that would have required the Corps to conduct more extensive reviews. The appeals court decision cleared the way for a backlog of permits that had been delayed until the lawsuit was resolved.

The EPA’s action on Tuesday leaves those permit requests in limbo a little longer.

“If the EPA didn’t step in and do something now, all those permits would go forward,” said Joe Lovett, executive director for the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment. “There are permits that will bury 200 miles of streams pending before the Corps.”

Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, said further delays in the permits would cost the region high-paying jobs. “This is very troubling, not only for jobs in the region, but production of coal generally,” said Raulston.

In a separate action, the EPA recommended denying two permits the Army Corps of Engineers was planning to issue that would allow two companies to fill thousands of feet of streams with mining waste in West Virginia and Kentucky.

In letters sent Monday to the Corps’ office in Huntington, W.Va., the EPA said that Central Appalachia Mining and Highland Mining Co. have not done enough to avoid and minimize damage to water quality and stream channels.

In the case of the Highland Mining’s plans, which would fill in approximately 13,174 feet of stream in Logan County, W.Va., the agency said it believes the project “will result in substantial and unacceptable impacts to aquatic resources of national importance.”

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Eric Dodrill permalink
    April 21, 2009 9:46 pm

    Very controversial, but our continued dependence on fossil fuel for electricity continues. I am from West Virginia and 32 acres of our 224 acre family farm is now being mined with mountain top removal methods. Very stark and disturbing, yet it provides much needed jobs in an area proud of it’s history as a coal supplier to the world. While more can and needs to be done to portect our fragile environment, a balance has to be struck.

    Example: The new ban on new permits is potentially delivering a devastating 25% reduction in Webster County, WV’s budget in the next few months, not to mention the loss of jobs in a depressed economic area of the state and country.

  2. April 21, 2009 10:29 pm

    I agree about dependence on fossil fuels. We are going to have to rethink the fuel for manufacturing and transportation, before any real changes are going to take place. This will also mean redefining business; essentially, taking away “bottom line” motivations and replacing them with practices that put long-term uses of resources at the forefront of decision making. So many day-to-day functions will have to change and adapt. But, I believe, for the better.

    For right now, at the very least we ought to be able to put people to work at the beginning parts for those changes. My thoughts on where to start for the loss of jobs and income is to make the Coal companies liable for what they’ve externalized; and from there, use that money as a starter to recreate a foundation for income. Years of laborious restoration work is surely going to be necessary to restore a lot of their land. Also, the staples of consumption need to manufactured closer to the perimeter of where they’re consumed.

    On a side note: I had a professor drop off a documentary to me that addressed some of the mining concerns around that area, and it stated that they’re used to be 125,000 jobs for coal miners in W. Virginia when there was less production. Now, production is up, and there is only 15,000 jobs for coal miners. My belief is: on this track the entire operation will be automized with all profits going directly to the top, and jobs won’t even come into the argument; since, by that time, there may only be a few to choose from. I know if I ran one of those Coal companies with profit on the mind, that would be the direction I’d take.

  3. J.L. Scott permalink
    May 7, 2009 3:27 pm

    I have lived in WV my entire life. I have worked in and around mining since I returned from college. All of these organizations and individuals that are fighting against surface mining have not been given the whole story. When you see the pictures of these mines it shows the mining in progess NOT THE END RESULT!! Which in most cases have taken a piece of land that was not useable for any purpose, and made it into grazing land for cattle, wildlife perserves, airports, shopping mall, home sites etc… the list goes on and on. With all this in mind we also rely on surface mining for a large part of our electricity. ARE ALL OF THE OPPONENTS AGAINIST MINING READY TO TURN OFF THEIR LIGHTS, AC’S, TV’S, RADIO’S, OVENS, HEATERS, ETC…… I dont think so!!!
    If surface mining is stopped not only will WV become a ghost town with no industry, but the rest of the US is going to have long cold winters and very hot summers!!!

    I THINK THERE HAS TO BE A MIDDLE GROUND THAT BOTH PARTIES CAN AGREE!!!!

  4. May 7, 2009 9:15 pm

    J.L.

    Your work as a supplier for heavier machinery is dependent on mountains being stripped down. I’m not sure if that’s enough of a reason to negate the reality of the destruction to the specific Appalachian ecosystems that come from the removal of mountaintops.

    There are absolutely technologies available to replace the portion of electricity necessary for responsible living in and around urban areas. Most of these technologies – wind, geothermal, water, solar and tidal – will have to be utilized according to the characteristics of the region, but it’s not to say that we can’t allow the dryer to run, or to be able to keep the radio on. As far as air conditioning goes, that’s more of an architectural problem than an electrical one.

    I know and I’ve seen the “so-called” remedial work in-and-around MTR sites. In most cases it’s a barren land with a few trailers, and a lot of invasive plants that they say can be used to graze cattle – but, in most cases, will cause the cattle to become sick or develop problems. The list you referred to “that goes on-and-on” is hardly a suitable replacement for a biotic community that took thousands of years to develop. I think, as a society, we’ve stripped enough out of the ground and displaced or removed enough habitats that it’s time to start respecting the ones we have left; it’s time to begin a responsible lifestyle that accounts for the resources we use, and ensures we can replace what we consume, while at the same time understanding that some resource, and some products that cannot be replaced, ought not to be consumed or used at all. The middle ground is not going to include coal.

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