If the Obama administration wants to protect the people and mountains of Appalachia, it needs to end the destructive practice of mountaintop mining, not settle for promises of stricter scrutiny of the mining permits, advocates say.
This morning, the White House announced what it described as an "unprecedented" agreement among the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Interior Department to better coordinate and tighten the agencies' oversight of mountaintop mining and to review the mining existing laws.
In a memorandum of understanding, the agencies promised to:
• Require more stringent environmental reviews for future mountaintop mining permits, including using the Clean Water Act to reduce contamination in streams and watersheds;
• Propose a rule change to stop allowing a type of nationwide permit that doesn't require site-specific reviews for mining operations to dump the mineral-laden debris of former mountaintops into streams;
• Strengthen oversight of state agencies, both in their permitting and enforcement;
• And, if the U.S. District Court vacates the Bush administration's 2008 Stream Buffer Zone Rule as requested, return to the 1983 rules restoring the 100-foot buffer zone around streams for mining waste.
These are all steps in the right direction, but they aren't enough, says Willa Mays, Executive Director of Appalachian Voices:
"Their priorities do not take into account that mountains are being blown up today, and until mountaintop removal coal mining is ended, residents will continue to suffer from high disease rates, floods, and poisoned water supplies directly attributable to this mining practice."
Advocates across Appalachia echoed her concern.
Kentuckians for the Commonwealth member Teri Blanton:
"It's always a good thing to protect people and water, but this announcement is not an end to mountaintop removal. As Wendell Berry has stated, you can't regulate an abomination."
Coal River Mountain Watch Co-Director Vernon Haltom:
"Without a significant change in policy, mining companies will continue to destroy our mountains and bury our streams on the Obama administration's watch. They need to put a stop to this, and they're not doing so."
Kentucky Waterways Alliance Executive Director Judith Petersen:
"By moving to end the Nationwide Permit, the administration is making it harder for coal companies to bury streams and promising tougher enforcement. But we believe that if fully enforced, the Clean Water Act would prohibit filling streams with mining waste, making mountaintop removal coal mining nearly impossible."
In the coal-rich mountains stretching from West Virginia to Tennessee, mining companies have flattened more than 1 million acres of Appalachia by razing the trees and then blowing off the mountaintops to get at the coal seams.
Their practice of pushing the mountaintop "overburden" into the neighboring valleys has filled more than 700 miles of streams and degraded hundreds of miles more with traces of nickel, lead, cadmium, iron and selenium. Residents describe how changes to the terrain have exacerbated flooding, and the heavy metals that leach into the streams have poisoned their wells, fish and wildlife.
Two bills currently in Congress would begin to tackle the problem by expressly prohibiting coal companies from dumping their mining waste in streams. Versions of the Clean Water Protection Act in the House and the Appalachian Restoration Act in the Senate were first offered in 2002. So far, though, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have failed to pass them.
The White House doesn't have to wait for Congress to act, says Earthjustice legislative council Joan Mulhern:
"The Obama administration could easily change the regulations back to restore longstanding prohibitions on burying streams and rivers with waste, but they seem to be hiding behind an excuse that their hands are tied." She described the administration's announcement today as mostly "rearranging the bureaucratic deck chairs."
"If the Clean Water Act were enforced, it would prohibit this type of stream destruction."
Blanton of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth sees a few rays of hope in today's announcement.
At least the federal government finally recognizes the damage that mountaintop mining is doing to the mountains, the water quality and the lives of the people, she said. The administration mentioned looking more broadly at the entire watersheds for the first time, and it acknowledged the presence of pollutants and heavy metals such as selenium and manganese.
"The fact that they're even acknowledging the adverse impacts on people and the environment is a positive step," she said.
Appalachian residents and advocates have been on an emotional roller coaster this year. In January, they cheered the White House arrival of President Obama, who had expressed concern about mountaintop mining. A month later, they watched with dismay as a federal appeals court overturned a 2007 ruling that had required the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct more thorough permit reviews for proposed mountaintop mines.
The EPA, which has the authority to review the permits under the Clean Water Act, then halted a handful of mining plans in March and said it would take a closer look at about 150 more that were pending. A few weeks ago, however, the EPA said it would allow 42 of the first 48 permits through.
One of the most important government moves so far was the request in April for a U.S. District Court to vacate the Bush administration's last minute changes to the Stream Buffer Zone Rule.
Until last year, the rule prohibited the dumping of mining waste within 100 feet of a stream unless the company could prove that its actions wouldn't hurt the water quality or quantity, though lax enforcement meant the rule was often ignored. The Bush administration opened a loophole in November, rewriting the rule so it doesn't apply to permanent excess spoil fills and coal waste disposal facilities.
"The only way to end the devastation in Appalachia is to quickly reverse the Bush administration's rule making it legal to fill streams with mining waste," Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope said today.
"The true test of these new policies and of President Obama's legacy on this issue will be whether they change the terrible situation on the ground in Appalachia."