On April first, Fossil Fools Day to some, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced new guidance and clarity when it comes to mountaintop removal (MTR). The EPA’s goal is to “further clarify” and “strengthen” the permitting requirements for Appalachian mountaintop removal, effective in six states; West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Tennessee. The new guidance sets out to detail the EPA’s responsibilities, including effective use of the Clean Water Act.
As part of the guidelines announced on Thursday, the EPA made two scientific reports, prepared by the Office of Research and Development, publicly available. One paper examines the aquatic impacts of mountaintop removal and valley fills. The other report set a new conductivity target of 300-500 microSiemens per centimeter. Conductivity is a measure of the ability of a fluid to carry a charge, which is directly related to the concentration of dissolved substances. As the total dissolved substances in the water increases, the conductivity increases.
Time Magazine had recently published a piece about the environmental repercussions of mountaintop removal coal mining. Images of mountain destruction were clearly invoked in the article. The March 12th piece highlighted the destruction done to the natural habitats of local species, and established the violent and misplaced nature of explosions in the mountains. But the greatest environmental damages that result from MTR coal mining reside in the water quality. After the mountaintop has been removed and mining is done, solid and slurry waste is deposited and collected in valleys, creating “valley fills”. Mining also affects the water quality in lakes, streams, and rivers, and other surface water. One EPA report found that some samples in Appalachia water downstream from MTR operations were fifty times the US safety standards. Another independent analysis found that 14 out of 17 sites in West Virginia and Kentucky exceeded federal toxin levels.
The new conductivity standards essentially mean that valley fills are most likely not to be used. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said that “minimizing the number of valley fills is a key factor…no or very few valley fills are going to be able to meet standards like this.”
The EPA has received concerned about how environmental protection is at odds with economic and job security for residents of the six states affected by the new guidance. But some think that the EPA guidance does not fulfill the policy needs to protect the environment.
Additional environmental legislation relating to coal mining waste that has yet to be passed includes two bills in the House of Representatives and the Senate. A bill that was introduced in the House on March 4, 2009 which aims to “amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to clarify that fill material cannot be comprised of waste” currently has 167 cosponsors. Another bill, S. 696, was introduced in the Senate in March 2009, aims to “amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to include a definition of fill material.” It has been submitted to committee.
Many environmental groups see the EPA’s new guidance as a step in the right direction, but the guidance still needs to hold up through the public input (protest) period and needs to follow through with its goal of enforcing their responsibilities once the new permitting rules are adopted.
1. Jackson Register-Herald “New EPA Rules to Limit Mountaintop Removal” April 02, 2010
2. “In West Virginia, a Battle Over Mountaintop Mining” http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1971709,00.html
5. Text of S. 696: Appalachia Restoration Act http://www.govtrack.us/congress/billtext.xpd?bill=s111-696