The EPA has given tentative – and quiet – approval to a new mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia. It is the agency's first decision under the new guidelines it issued April 1 which promised to prevent "significant and irreversible damage to Appalachian watersheds at risk from mining activity."
Environmental groups say the approval, which was indicated in a letter last week, shows the agency is not serious about sticking to those stricter new regulations and the science behind them.
In mountaintop removal mining, coal mining companies strip away forests then blast the bare mountaintops to cut through hundreds of feet of rock and reach the coal seams buried below. The dynamited rock, soil and unearthed heavy metals, collectively called "spoil" or "overburden," are dumped into adjacent valleys, often burying streams that wildlife and area residents depend on. Toxins from those mine sites that make it into the water and air have been blamed for health problems including birth defects and chronic heart and lung diseases.
But the EPA contends its modifications to the proposal for the Pine Creek Surface Mine, which are laid out in the letter, will bring the project into compliance with its new guidelines and that its final approval depends on whether those recommendations are sufficiently taken into account.
The letter outlines changes that Coal-Mac Inc., the applying company and a subsidiary of coal mine giant Arch Coal, "needs to make in order to fall under the principles laid out in the [EPA's] April 1 guidance on surface mining," according to a statement the EPA issued to SolveClimate. "A final decision on this project has not been made and EPA is waiting for a response from the Corps and the mining company regarding our comments."
As word has gotten out of the EPA letter, dated June 21, the extent of the changes the agency recommends has come under attack. The main point of contention for environmental groups is that just three months after issuing the long-awaited new regulations, the agency would sign off yet another mountaintop mining project that they say will be just as damaging as those approved prior to the regulations.
Disappointment the Theme
Bill Price, a Sierra Club environmental justice organizer in West Virginia said they "had high hopes" for the new mountaintop removal guidance. "But apparently we were mistaken."
"For us it's a really disheartening and scary test of what we thought were really exciting new guidelines," Rainforest Action Network's Nell Greenberg told SolveClimate.
This disappointment stems largely from comments EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson made in announcing the new guidelines. "You are talking about either no or very few valley fills that are going to be able to meet standards like this," she said.
Those standards have to do with the amount of mining runoff that is allowed to pollute stream water. This is measured in conductivity, or the amount of salt in the water, and the EPA set a maximum conductivity level of 500 microSiemens per centimeter. That means mines would be allow to pollute up to that point, or to roughly five times the normal levels of salinity.
This new, stricter standard was praised by environmental groups, especially because the EPA had proposed vetoing the permit for the biggest surface mine in West Virginia, the Spruce No.1 mine, the week before. In announcing the new regulations, the agency cited Spruce No.1 as a mine that did not meet the new standards. That mine is also owned by Arch Coal.
Arch Coal did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Despite some groups' disappointment and the promises in Jackson's April 1 comments, the EPA appears to be largely sticking to at least the letter of their new rules in signing off on the modified Pine Creek proposal.
Among the "significant changes" it made to Coal-Mac's proposal, "the changes include limiting the operation to a single valley fill until the company demonstrates an absence of adverse impacts on water quality," the EPA said in its statement to SolveClimate.
One Valley Fill Instead of Three
The mining company had wanted to build three valley fills for the Pine Creek mine, and to build them more or less simultaneously. The EPA is instead only allowing one for now. It says it will assess the impacts on the watershed and whether the conductivity levels exceed the 500 microSiemens per centimeter level before determining whether to authorize the other two fills.
But the letter concedes that the left fork of Pine Creek is already approaching conductivity levels of 500. Greenberg says that those levels would not be allowed to get worse but that the runoff would be directed to the other fork.
"That creates a really scary situation because basically what they're saying is, 'The water sources that are already poisoned, don't poison those anymore, but the ones that are still okay you can keep poisoning up to a certain point,'" she said. "From our perspective, 50 percent poisoned water is still 50 percent poisoned water."
Coal-Mac will also build new stream channels that the EPA says should lead to over 40,000 linear feet of stream – more than twice the amount of streams currently in the area. As proposed, the letter notes, the project would impact 14,530 linear feet of stream. The EPA believes construction of the new channels is consistent with both the Clean Water Act and its revised mountaintop mining guidelines. Whether it is legally valid or not, the scientific validity of this undertaking is questionable.
Legal Validity Not Science-Based
A January study published in the journal Science found that there is a "preponderance of scientific evidence that impacts [of mountaintop removal] are pervasive and irreversible and that mitigation cannot compensate for losses." Not even building new streams or rebuilding old ones could save the biodiversity or ecological benefits of the streams buried by mining, it said.
"Notwithstanding recent attempts to improve reclamation, the immense scale of mountaintop mining makes it unrealistic to think that true restoration or mitigation is possible with current techniques," co-author Keith Eshleman said at the time.
But Coal-Mac has an additional plan: to place a deed restriction on three areas at its Phoenix No. 5 mine that are already permitted for fills. Valley fills are already approved to go ahead at five sites at that mine. Two of those have already been constructed, but the restriction will mean the remaining three cannot be filled.
The EPA estimates this would save 3,900 linear feet of stream from negative impacts and account for nearly a 40 percent "reduction of impacts on the Pine Creek watershed."
Taking these mitigation and avoidance efforts into account, the EPA has concluded that – with its modifications – the application can move forward, though the agency requests that it be able to review the draft again prior to finalization. Approval by the Army Corps of Engineers would be the next step.
Coal releases more carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy produced than any other fossil fuel, but it also provides more than half the United States' electricity supply. Mountaintop mining, a practice that has grown throughout the past 30 years, now supplies about 10 percent of U.S. coal. Arch Coal says it produces 16 percent of U.S. coal supply, making it the second largest producer.
The EPA has a long history with trying to come to terms with the impacts of mountaintop removal mining, starting with the Clean Water Act and continuing with the 1983 stream buffer zone rule stating that no land within 100 feet of a stream shall be disturbed by surface mining activities without regulatory approval. The April guidelines are the latest chapter in that history – though what they will mean for the environment and the climate going forward is apparently not yet clear.