The agreement signed Thursday between officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Interior, and the Army Corp of Engineers aims to reduce the environmental impacts of mountaintop coal mining in the six Appalachian states of Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.
"While the administration's announcement demonstrates some good intentions, particularly in their emphasis on green jobs in Appalachia, they are seeking compromise on an issue that is continuing the Bush administration legacy of sacrificing Appalachian Mountain communities," said Willa Mays, executive director of the advocacy group 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."
Mountaintop removal coal mining involves blasting with explosives to remove up to 1,000 vertical feet of mountaintop to expose underlying coal seams. Tons of waste rock are dumped into mountain streams, filling the valleys below.
The agreement mandates an end to the streamlined permitting process for mountaintop removal coal mining and better coordination with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Mountaintop removal mining operations above Bob White, West Virginia, the hometown of Maria Gunnoe, a 2009 Goldman Prize-winning advocate. (Photo by Vivian Stockman courtesy OVEC, flyover courtesy SouthWings)
It deals with the Bush administration's last minute Stream Buffer Zone Rule change. Within 30 days, the Army Corps will issue a proposal to modify Nationwide Permit 21 so that it cannot be used to authorize the discharge of fill material into streams for surface coal mining activities in the Appalachian region, and will seek public comment on the proposed action.
The EPA pledges better coordination with states on water pollution permits for discharges from valley fills and state water quality certifications for mountaintop coal mining operations.
The agencies vow to improve stream mitigation projects to increase ecological performance and compensate for losses of these important waters of the United States.
"Mountaintop coal mining cannot be predicated on the assumption of minimal oversight of its environmental impacts, and its permanent degradation of water quality. Stronger reviews and protections will safeguard the health of local waters, and thousands of acres of watersheds in Appalachia," said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.
Residents and advocates of coal communities say they are encouraged by the attention to this issue but disappointed in the lack of urgency displayed by the agreement.
At the same time, they point out, both court actions and natural disasters are increasing the risks that mountaintop removal coal operations pose to their communities.
On June 10, the West Virginia Supreme Court approved a second coal silo to be built less tha 100 yards from the Marsh Fork Elementary School, which rests immediately below a coal sludge dam and an expanding mountaintop removal mining site.
In May, hundreds of homes were affected by severe flooding in Mingo County, West Virginia, and Breathitt County, Kentucky, exacerbated by increased run-off from mountaintop removal sites.
Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel at the law firm Earthjustice, said, "We are disappointed that the people of Appalachia and their community watersheds will continue to be the sacrificial lamb for our nation's dependence on coal. Despite the strength of the Clean Water Act and the clear direction that perennial and intermittent streams cannot be buried and destroyed, mountaintop removal mining will continue unabated. The valleys, streams, forests, mountains and communities of Appalachia are facing a bleak future indeed.
"We hope that at some point soon the Obama administration will actually do something to stop mountaintop removal before more of Appalachia is permanently destroyed," said Mulhern.
While coal combustion supplies about half of the electricity used in the United States, both industry and environmental groups say mountaintop removal mined coal provides less than five percent of that electricity.
"With coal demand down by five percent due to the recession, the administration is missing an unprecedented opportunity to replace mountaintop removal coal with new sources of energy," said Dr. Matthew Wasson, director of programs at Appalachian Voices. "We're concerned that this incremental decision-making could open the door for an even greater expansion of mountaintop removal coal mining when the recession ends and the price of coal rebounds."
But Obama administration officials say the agreement will protect the environment from the worst impacts of mountaintop removal operations.
"The steps we are taking today are a firm departure from the previous administration's approach to mountaintop coal mining, which failed to protect our communities, water, and wildlife in Appalachia," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. "By toughening enforcement standards, by looking for common-sense improvements to our rules and regulations, and by coordinating our efforts with other agencies, we will immediately make progress toward reducing the environmental impacts of mountaintop coal mining."
The agreement among the three federal agencies documents the destructive nature of this mining practice. "Although its scale and efficiency has enabled the mining of once-inaccessible coal seams, this mining practice often stresses the natural environment and impacts the health and welfare of surrounding human communities."
"Streams once used for swimming, fishing, and drinking water have been adversely impacted, and groundwater resources used for drinking water have been contaminated. Some forest lands that sustain water quality and habitat and contribute to the Appalachian way of life have been fragmented or lost," the memo of agreement states. "These negative impacts are likely to further increase as mines transition to less accessible coal resources within already affected watersheds and communities."
Members of Congress say stronger legislation is needed to curb mountaintop removal mining.
Congressman Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat, called the Obama administration's plan "a positive step forward" but said, "To address the heart of the problem, Congress needs to pass the Clean Water Protection Act (HR 1310), legislation I introduced to prohibit the valleyfill process, which allows coal companies to dump toxic waste into headwater streams."
First introduced in 2002, the Clean Water Protection Act would disallow the dumping of mining waste into the valley and streams near mountaintop removal sites. A companion bill, the Appalachian Restoration Act, was introduced in the Senate earlier this year.
"Mountaintop mining is one of the most destructive practices that already has destroyed some of America's most beautiful and ecologically significant regions," said Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who chairs the Environment and Public Works Water and Wildlife Subcommittee. He sponsored S. 696, the Appalachian Restoration Act.
Senator Cardin announced that he intends to hold a hearing to address "mountaintop mining" practices, saying, "We must put an end to this mining method that has buried more than a thousand miles of streams."
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.