The EPA put the coal industry on notice today: Mountaintop mining won't be getting a free pass from the federal government any more.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced that her agency has serious concerns about the damage mountaintop mining is causing in the streams of Appalachia, and she said the EPA will be carefully reviewing mountaintop mining permit requests.
The move sends a strong signal that the new EPA will be steering the federal government back to the original intent of the Clean Water Act.
"It certainly doesn't resolve the issue of mountaintop removal permanently, but it's an enormous first step," said Matt Wasson, executive director of Appalachian Voices.
"It restores hope that we can get past the legacy of the last eight years and really start working toward building a new green jobs economy in the region – that's what we're hoping is the next step the Obama administration will be taking."
In king coal's search for a cheaper way to mine, the industry has flattened more than 1 million acres of Appalachian mountaintops. The coal companies strip their targeted mountaintops bare, then blow off the tops to get directly at the coal seams. They push the leftover rock and mining debris into the valleys below, often not far from homes and private property.
That "overburden," as they call the former mountaintop, is laden with newly unearthed heavy metals that leach into streams and wells, where they can poison fish and contaminate drinking water.
So far, mountaintop mining operations have buried more than 700 miles of streams under mining waste, and degraded hundreds of miles more with traces of nickel, lead, cadmium, iron and selenium. Some homes that were once on safe ground now flood because of the changed terrain; others look onto now-devastated scenes.
Rick Handshoe, a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, has been praying that the administration would take action on mountaintop mining quickly. His eastern Kentucky community is already facing nine existing valley fill permits from mountaintop mining operations, and three more have been proposed.
"It's a victory that they are even looking at the impacts of these valley fills," Handshoe said. "If they look at it, they will see what's going on."
The responsibility for issuing Clean Water Act permits for these surface mining operations rests with the Army Corps of Engineers. It's own web site prominently lists environmental sustainability as "a guiding principle."
However, the EPA, which has the power to reject those permits, made it clear today that the water in Appalachia's streams is not being protected as well as it should be.
The agency sent two letters to the Corps about specific mining operations – Highland Mining Company's plans to dump mining waste in the Reylas Fork near Ethel, W.Va., and Central Appalachian Mining's Big Branch site in Pike County, Ky.
The EPA said the mining operations' proposals would significantly degrade nearby streams and permanently damage the ecosystems, and it found that the companies' proposed steps to offset the damage were inadequate.
The EPA also requested "meetings with the Corps and the mining companies seeking the new permits to discuss alternatives that would better protect streams, wetlands and rivers." Jackson promised that her agency "will use the best science and follow the letter of the law in ensuring we are protecting our environment."
Untangling Bush-Era Policies
The Bush Administration threw open the doors for mountaintop mining in 2002 when it changed the definition of "fill material" allowed in streams under the Clean Water Act to include mining waste. It also snuck in a last minute gift for the coal industry in December by repealing the stream buffer zone rule that prohibited mining with 100 feet of streams.
Congress is now considering a proposed Clean Water Protection Act to close the mine waste loophole. The legislation has yet to make it through Congress after several attempts, though.
"Lax rules by the Bush Administration have made mountaintop removal an American emergency," said Appalachian Voices legislative liaison JW Randolph. "The Obama Administration must work with the EPA to reverse these rules permanently to protect and promote the economy, the energy future, and indeed the very hills and hollows that make Appalachia what it is."
A lawsuit filed two years ago by the Ohio Valley Environmental Council has helped delay some mountaintop mining projects at the permit stage, where the EPA can get involved. OVEC argued that the Army Corps of Engineers had been violating the Clean Water Act and National Environmental Protection Act by not considering damage to the valleys and downstream areas when it conducted the mandatory environmental reviews for planned mountaintop mining sites.
A district judge ruled in OVEC's favor, but the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals last month overturned the decision. The EPA mentioned that case today:
"As a result [of the OVEC lawsuit], there is a significant backlog of permits under review by the Corps. EPA expects to be actively involved in the review of these permits following issuance of the 4th Circuit decision."
The Next Step: Reviving Appalachia
Ending the practice of mountaintop removal is a positive first step, but the long-neglected region needs more attention from Washington. The coal fields of Appalachia, stretching from West Virginia to eastern Tennessee, include some of the most impoverished counties in the nation, and right now, the coal industry is their largest employer.
Wasson believes green jobs could revive the mountain region.
Members of Appalachian Voices spent last week with more than 140 other mountain advocates in Washington, D.C., talking to Congress and the administration about the devastation of mountaintop removal in Appalachia and how to replace it with a sustainable, green economy.
The arrival of Van Jones as the president's advisor on green jobs was an encouraging sign that the Obama administration is listening to that argument for green jobs and is ready to help places like Appalachia, Wasson said.
Vivian Stockman of OVEC cheered the EPA's announcement today, but like Randolph and Wasson, she knows the fight over mountaintop mining is far from over:
"We can expect intense backlash from the politically powerful coal industry and the politicians feeding off its campaign contributions," Stockman said. "But today, finally, we feel like the all our efforts to speak truth to power are bearing fruit. Our voices are being heard."
"The Obama administration has the courage to stand up to Big Coal, and the wisdom to consider the science, and the compassion to listen to the communities that are suffering because of this extreme form of coal mining."