The Environmental Protection Agency raised the bar for mountaintop mining today with a proposal to stop or at least significantly restrict one of Appalachia’s largest and most disputed mining operations, the Spruce No. 1 mine in Logan County, W.Va.
In the view of environmental groups, it was a sign that the Obama administration is taking its promise to follow the science seriously.
Earlier this year, a dozen scientists issued a comprehensive study of the data on mountaintop mining’s impact on water, land and human and animal health. They were so concerned by what they found, they took the unusual step of recommending that mountaintop mining be halted. Many of the same concerns the scientists expressed then about fish health, toxins in water and impacts on ecology well downstream of the mines also appeared in the EPA’s proposed action today. The proposed determination faces a 60-day comment period before it can be finalized.
“We see this as confirmation that they’re taking their responsibility to prevent water deterioration very, very seriously,” said Appalachian Voices Program Director Matthew Wasson, an ecologist. “That certainly doesn’t mean they’ll be detailing every permit that comes before them — it’s very clear they won’t. But they do seem to be to taking this father than before.
“With a permit of that scope that permanently destroys that amount of stream area, it just confirms what we have long held and long believed that it’s just not compatible with the Clean Water Act in any way.”
The sprawling Spruce No. 1 mine site, already in operation, has been a point of contention and lawsuits from environmental groups for over a decade. EPA has gone back and forth with the Army Corps of Engineers over whether the owner, an Arch Coal subsidiary, would cause too much damage to the state’s waterways with its mining plan. In 2007, however, the Corps and the state of West Virginia moved ahead, authorizing mining to begin.
While the Corps has the authority to approve mining permits, EPA has veto power when it reviews environmental impact statements, and that’s what it is proposing to use now. It has used that authority only 12 times and never before for an already permitted mine like Spruce No. 1.
EPA Regional Administrator for the Mid-Atlantic, Shawn Garvin, said his agency tried to work with the mining company to decrease the environmental and health risks from the project but the talks failed.
“Coal, and coal mining, is part of our nation’s energy future, and for that reason EPA has made repeated efforts to foster dialogue and find a responsible path forward. But we must prevent the significant and irreversible damage that comes from mining pollution — and the damage from this project would be irreversible,” Garvin said. “EPA has a duty under the law to protect water quality and safeguard the people who rely on these waters for drinking, fishing and swimming.”
In the proposed determination released today, Garvin wrote: “EPA believes that the predicted impacts from the Spruce No. 1 mine, if constructed as currently authorized, could have unacceptable effects on wildlife and fisheries.” He talked about the degradation of water from mining debris that is dumped into streams with unearthed metals and elements, such as selenium, which can cause birth defects in fish. The dumping of mining debris in streams also destroys habitat relied upon by the region’s salamanders, fish and smaller creatures, such as insects that are key elements in the food chain for birds, bats and other animals, he wrote. And pollutions would become a problem downstream from the valley fills and could contribute to conditions that support golden algae blooms, which release more toxins dangerous to aquatic life. There is a cumulative impact that needs to be considered, he said.
It is important to remember that the streams that would be filled with debris from Spruce No. 1 mining, particularly Oldhouse Branch and Pigeonroost Branch, currently “are generally healthy, functioning streams with good water quality,” Garvin wrote.
This is a region of West Virginia where state officials, in a 1997 assessment, identified as a priority the need to “locate and protect the few remaining high-quality streams.” The Coal River sub-basin has had more than 257 past and present mining permits, collectively occupying some 13 percent of the land, according to the EPA. At the same time, the area has about 51 species listed as endangered, threatened or state rear species, and many of them rely on aquatic ecosystems for their lifecycle.
“The streams that will be buried cannot be viewed in a vacuum,” Garvin wrote. “When those streams and wildlife are buried, there will be effects to downstream waters and downstream wildlife caused by the removal of functions performed by the buried resources and by transformation of the buried areas into source that may contribute pollutants to downstream waters.”
Arch Coal issued a statement saying it was “disappointed that EPA has chosen to take the unprecedented action to initiate the veto process under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act against a validly issued and existing permit. The Spruce permit is the most scrutinized and fully considered permit in West Virginia’s history. The 13-year permitting process included the preparation of a full environmental impact statement, the only permit in the eastern coal fields to ever undergo such review.”
From 10 Miles of Buried Stream to 7.48
When Spruce No.1 was originally proposed for the rugged mountains of Logan County in 1998, the plan would have directly impacted 3,113 acres and more than 10 miles of streams as miners stripped the mountaintops of trees, dynamited the peaks and pushed the debris into valleys so they could strip out the coal seams.
In EPA’s view, the initial environmental impact statement contained too little detail about the impact on streams, though, so it ordered a new assessment.
In the revised environmental impact statement in 2006, the mining company cut the project’s impacts to 2,278 acres and 7.48 miles of streams. About 110 million cubic yards of former mountaintops, rock and unearthed elements would be dumped into streams over 15 years, according to the EPA.
In the action filed today, the EPA regional administrator proposed to recommend prohibiting or at least restricting the company’s dumping of mining waste into Pigeonroost Branch, Oldhouse Branch, Seng Camp Creek and some of their tributaries. Garvin wrote that he has reason to believe that the adverse impacts could be “reduced or avoided through appropriate modification of the project.” The next step is a 60-day comment period on that proposal.
Garvin’s explanation of the problems with Spruce No. 1 went farther than usual, also mentioning the effects of deforestation on terrestrial wildlife, including the fragmenting of their habitat. And he said that EPA was concerned that environmental justice issues were not being adequately addressed. This is an area EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has stressed. In the case of Logan County, Garvin noted that the per capita income is roughly half the national average, and 24 percent of residents live below the poverty line. These are the people who would be facing blasting zones, contaminated freshwater, truck traffic and dust, he said.
Rainforest Action Network praised the EPA’s move, calling it a big step for Appalachia’s water and community health.
“It seems that EPA Administrator Jackson’s concern over the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining on human health and waterways is now translating into meaningful action,” said Amanda Starbuck, Rainforest Action Network’s Global Finance Campaign Director.
“The science is clear that mountaintop removal is harming water resources in real and measurable ways. We hope that the Spruce Mine veto is a sign that EPA is going to begin using its full authority to stop this devastating practice.”
Sierra Club’s director of environmental quality, Ed Hopkins, urged the EPA to follow through on Garvin’s recommendation and to also quickly fix the Bush administration’s 2008 rulemaking that changed the stream buffer zone rule to allow mines to fill waterways with waste.
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(Photo: NRDC / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)