EPA Strengthens Rules to Prevent Harm from Appalachian Mountaintop Mining

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on Thursday a set of actions to further clarify and strengthen environmental permitting requirements for Appalachian mountaintop removal and other surface coal mining projects, in coordination with federal and state regulatory agencies.

The EPA used the best available science and adherence to the law in order to develop the comprehensive guidance, which sets clear benchmarks for preventing significant and irreversible damage to Appalachian watersheds at risk from mining activity.

Mountaintop removal is a form of surface coal mining in which explosives are used to access coal seams, generating large volumes of waste that bury adjacent streams. The resulting waste that then fills valleys and streams can significantly compromise water quality, often causing permanent damage to ecosystems and rendering streams unfit for swimming, fishing, and drinking. The EPA estimates that almost 2,000 miles of Appalachian headwater streams have been buried by mountaintop coal mining.

"The people of Appalachia shouldn’t have to choose between a clean, healthy environment in which to raise their families and the jobs they need to support them. That’s why EPA is providing even greater clarity on the direction the agency is taking to confront pollution from mountain top removal," said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. "We will continue to work with all stakeholders to find a way forward that follows the science and the law. Getting this right is important to Americans who rely on affordable coal to power homes and businesses, as well as coal communities that count on jobs and a livable environment, both during mining and after coal companies move to other sites."

On March 25, the EPA proposed to block the Spruce Number One mine in Logan County, W.Va., entirely, or at least stop it from using "valley fills"—depositing excess rock and rubble in nearby streams—despite the fact that the mine has a federal permit, according to The Washington Post.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, the EPA has the power to veto projects that would cause an "unacceptable adverse impact," but it has used that power only 12 times since 1972. It has never used the power in a case such as this, where the mine has a permit.

Currently, Arch Coal, the company that owns the Spruce Number One mine, has issued an announcement that it is evaluating all possible options for relief from the government’s actions and that it intends to vigorously defend the Spruce mine permit by all legal means.

Sources: EPA, Washington Post, Arch Coal

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