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EPA Stops Coal Companies From Destroying Hundreds of Mountaintops and Streams With High Explosives
Joe Romm, 26 Mar 09
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This week the EPA scored a one-two combination against our unsustainable use of fossil fuels.

Monday, three weeks earlier than expected, the EPA announced that greenhouse gases are pollutants that endanger public health and welfare (see here), requiring the Obama administration to regulate them in accordance with the Clean Air Act.

And yesterday, the EPA put a hold on hundreds of surface coal mine operations allowing the Agency time to assess the projects’ detrimental impact on the life of streams and wetlands. (More details here.)

The EPA’s announcement is among the initial blows landed in the fight between the Agency and producers of climate-changing, civilization-ending greenhouse gases.

The first skirmish happened earlier this month when, on the same day that the EPA announced plans to regulate coal ash (see here), 4,000 gallons of the toxic sludge mysteriously broke its barriers and spilled into the North Branch Potomac River.

This was not the first, nor the biggest spill in recent memory (see The day ‘clean coal’ died and Breaking: Second TVA coal ash pond ruptures — at Widows Creek coal plant) though the ash slurry flowing down the Potomac, heading for the nation’s capital, seemed to send a conspicuous message.

The AP reports:

Under the Clean Water Act, companies cannot discharge rock, dirt and other debris into streams unless they can show that it will not cause permanent damage to waterways or the fish and other wildlife that live in them.

So if dumping coal wastes into America’s watersheds causes “permanent damage” to the wildlife that (used to) live there, the coal industry would have to cease this practice under penalty of law. Note that the Clean Water Act puts the burden of proof on the coal companies, stating that they must demonstrate their dumping “will not cause permanent damage.”

I wonder if the Army Corps of Engineers–the agency responsible for issuing permits to explode over 500 mountain tops and destroy over 1,200 miles of streams–has remained faithful to this legal provision. Has any coal company ever produced evidence that their dirty practices do not permanently affect the well-being of freshwater ecosystems?

I expect Lisa Jackson will find coal wastes are just as terrible for long-term ecosystem health as crude oil.

Indeed the EPA’s two letters sent to the Army Corps on Monday asserted that mining industry plans to fill in approximately 2.5 miles of stream in Logan County W.Va. would “result in substantial and unacceptable impacts to aquatic resources of national importance,”–not to mention the impacts on employment (mountain top removal mining is more destructive and employs far fewer workers than traditional surface or pit mining) and local communities.

Though the coal industry will surely spend millions lobbying and litigating against environmental oversight, much of Appalachia views the EPA’s decision as a shared victory.

A letter from Appalachian voices, a North Carolina based grassroots organization, expresses this sentiment:

Community and environmental groups across Appalachia strongly applauded the EPA’s Tuesday decision to delay and review permits for two mountaintop removal coal mining operations. The EPA’s action calls into question over 100 pending valley fill permits that threaten to bury hundreds more miles of headwater streams.Mountaintop removal coal mining is an extreme form of surface mining where explosives are used to blast up to 1000 feet of mountaintop in order to reach thin seams of coal. The remaining rubble, or overburden, which contains toxic heavy metal particles, is dumped into adjacent valleys burying headwater streams. Over 1200 miles of streams and 500 mountains have been destroyed due to mountaintop removal.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama expressed concern over mountaintop removal, stating “we have to find more environmentally sound ways of mining coal than simply blowing the tops off mountains.”

“This decision illustrates a dramatic departure from the energy policies that are destroying the mountains, the culture, the rivers and forests of Appalachia, and our most deeply held American values,” said Bobby Kennedy Jr., Chairman of the Waterkeeper Alliance. “By this decision, President Obama signals our embarking on a new energy future that promises wholesome, dignified, prosperous and healthy communities that treasure our national resources.”

Mountaintop removal coal mining, a heavily mechanized process, employs far fewer workers than underground mining. Coal mining once provided over 120,000 jobs in West Virginia alone, but that number has dropped to less than 20,000. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, counties with a high concentration of mountaintop removal mines are some of the most impoverished counties in the United States.

Groups in the region view the recent EPA decision as an acknowledgement of the destruction mountaintop removal coal mining inflicts on the environment and communities of central Appalachia. They hope that, with the halt of new mountaintop removal mining permits, there will be room for green industry and that the president’s green jobs stimulus and renewable energy development plans will reach the Appalachian coalfields.

“Not only does mountaintop removal coal mining destroy mountains, it also destroys the economic potential of Appalachia,” said Dr. Matthew Wasson, Director of Programs for the environmental non-profit organization Appalachian Voices. “This decision rekindles hope for a new economy in Appalachia built around green jobs and renewable energy,” Wasson said.

Carl Shoupe, a retired coal miner and member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, echoed Wasson’s sentiment that this decision is a step in the right direction. “We finally have an administration in place that uses scientific reasoning to make decisions instead of ideology,” Shoupe said. “We fought for this for years. I hope the EPA comes through and permanently stops the permits in our community.”

It’s exciting to see that the EPA has returned with vigor from an 8-year dormancy, and is doing its job protecting environmental and human health.

– Sean Pool and Carlin Rosengarten

This piece originally appeared on Climate Progress.

Related posts: EPA Makes Landmark Finding: Global Warming Threatens Public Health and Welfare

Photo credit: flickr/The Sierra Club, Creative Commons License.

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