The EPA recently delivered a blow to the controversial method of mountaintop removal (MTR). MTR allows miners to gain access to coal seams deep in the Appalachian Mountains and is primarily used in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. In each of the several steps between removing the mountaintop and delivering the coal, the process drastically affects water quality around removal sites.
A New York Times article, by Tom Zeller, details the tougher water guidelines the EPA rolled out last Thursday. These guidelines will make it more difficult for valley fill operations to obtain a permit. The National Mining Association had two principle objections: first, that the guidelines were issued without a period of public comment; and second, that the guidelines would result in fewer jobs for the region.
How productive is mountaintop removal? iLoveMountains.org, quoting the EPA, says that MTR accounted for less than 5% of total US coal production as of 2001. A US Geological Survey Professional Paper shows that most of the remaining coal in top-producing Appalachian mines is “thinner, deeper, and higher in ash and sulfur than the coal that has been mined.” So, miners will have to work harder to retrieve coal that is lower in quality.
Not even the EPA, however, wants to completely stop MTR. Lisa Jackson, EPA’s administrator, said in an interview with the NYT that “[t]his is not about ending coal mining. This is about ending coal mining pollution.” The problem is that mining companies get many waivers regarding cleaning up. In theory, they are supposed to return the mountain to an approximation of its prior appearance. Even in theory, if they could return it to an approximation, they could not replace all of the trees and wildlife destroyed by the removal. And they have not even been trying since they have been allowed to leave their waste in the Appalachian streams, causing myriad health problems for nearby residents.
Which brings us back to the new guidelines. They are a step in the right direction toward stricter regulation of this terrible practice. Perhaps eventually it will be phased out, and the mountains can return to their isolated, sleepy state.
A note regarding the National Mining Association’s complaint about losing jobs: they should know better than anyone that the rise of MTR coincided with a loss of mining jobs, since heavy machinery takes workers’ place. See this graph from iLoveMountains.org: