By Suzanne Goldenberg, Guardian
The Obama administration effectively called time today on one of the most destructive industries in America, proposing new environmental guidelines for mountaintop mining removal.
The move was seen as a bold action from the White House, which has in the past disappointed environmental organizations for failing to move more aggressively on pollution and climate change.
But in a conference call with journalists, just an hour after the administration for the first time finalized regulations setting limits on greenhouse gas emissions from cars, officials spelled out guidelines that they acknowledged would make it virtually impossible for mining companies in Appalachia to carry on with business as usual.
The economics of mountaintop mining removal involve a highly destructive practice of blasting through hundreds of feet of mountaintop to get at thin but valuable seams of coal. The debris is removed to "valley fills", and nearly 2,000 miles of streams in Appalachia have been buried beneath such fills.
In recent years, opposition to the practice has spread from local activists to celebrities, with Robert Kennedy Jr. and Darryl Hannah demanding an end to the method.
Lisa Jackson, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said today it is unlikely that valley fills would meet the new standards.
"You are talking about either no or very few valley fills that are going to be able to meet standards like this," she said. "What the science is telling us is that it would be untrue to say you can have any more than minimal valley fill and not see irreversible damage to stream health."
Jackson said the new guidelines were not intended to end coal mining. But she admitted it would be hard work for mining companies to meet the new standard.
"They are going to require folks to roll up their sleeves to protect water quality," she said. "We believe that they are often going to need adjustment to projects proposed because of these new guidelines."
The guidelines laid out by Jackson today would set limits on conductivity in streams near mining sites. The electrical conductivity of streams is seen as a measure of the presence of harmful pollutants.
Officials said the new policy, which will apply to all new proposals and some 79 permits now under review, would protect 95% of aquatic life in streams in Appalachia.
EPA scientists have established that streams with conductivity greater than a certain level — 500 microsiemens per centimeter, a measure of salinity — were irreparably damaged. Officials said today the EPA would block any proposed operations projected to exceed its figure.
Today's guidelines mark a gradual tightening of conditions for mountain coal mining. Last week, the EPA took the rare step of vetoing a West Virginia mine that had already been granted a permit. The EPA said the Spruce No. 1 mine, which was approved under the Bush administration in 2007, would bury up to seven miles of stream and that toxic chemicals would hurt aquatic life. If approved, it would have been the largest mine in West Virginia.
The National Mining Association immediately condemned the move, saying it would cost jobs throughout Appalachia.
The Rainforest Action Network said: "The EPA has finally taken a leap to protect America's mountains and drinking water."
(Republished with permission of the Guardian)