New EPA Rules Clamp Down on Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

By Andrew Moseman | April 2, 2010 2:21 pm

MTRIt’s been a busy week for President Obama and energy. Two days ago his administration rolled out plans to expand millions of new acres of ocean off the U.S. coastline for oil and gas drilling; after we posted on it, many DISCOVER fans expressed their disdain for Obama’s move on our Facebook page. Today, though, there’s good news for the environmentalists: Obama‘s EPA said today it will put stricter restrictions on mountaintop removal coal mining.

At “mountaintop removal” mines, which are unique to Appalachian states, miners blast the peaks off mountains to reach coal seams inside and then pile vast quantities of rubble in surrounding valleys [Washington Post]. The chemicals that result from decapitating a mountain and mining coal tend to run off into the the valleys and pollute rivers and streams, however. So when 80beats last left mountaintop removal, a group of scientists had taken a public stance in the journal Science calling for a complete end to this kind of mining.

The new EPA rules don’t go that far. But the mining regulations will be difficult for mountaintop removal projects to meet. Basically, the EPA will set a standard level for permissible mining runoff allowed to reach waterways, and if a mining project is expected to exceed five times that number, it won’t go forward. Agency head Lisa Jackson says, “You are talking about either no or very few valley fills that are going to be able to meet standards like this. What the science is telling us is that it would be untrue to say you can have any more than minimal valley fill and not see irreversible damage to stream health” [The Guardian]. Between 2000 and 2008, the government had granted more than 500 permits for valley fills.

While the new rules are focused on new mines, it’s possible that established mines may not be simply grandfathered in. Ms. Jackson cited Arch Coal Inc.’s Spruce No. 1 mine, the biggest surface mine in West Virginia, as an example of a project that didn’t meet the new standard and would “degrade water quality in streams adjacent to the mine” [Wall Street Journal]. Last week the EPA proposed revoking Arch Coal’s permit, which unsurprisingly made the mining industry balk at what it calls an unprecedented move.

Related Content:
80beats: Obama Proposes Oil & Gas Drilling in Vast Swaths of U.S. Waters
80beats: Scientists Demand End to Mountaintop Decapitation; Mining Projects Advance Anyway
80beats: After Massive Tennessee Ash Spill, Authorities Try to Assess the Damage
80beats: Isn’t It Ironic: Green Tech Relies on Dirty Mining in China
80beats: Obama Admin. Rolls Back Bush-Era Rules on Mining & Forests

Image: Wikimedia Commons / JW Randolph

  • scott

    Good. It’s time for some forms of environmental “extremism” on issues like this. Otherwise, left to the corporations and execs, there would be nothing left.

    People and corporations need oversight and constraints. Without it/them, they will just ravaged everything. Dump, bury, fill, burn whatever they can to increase profits. If we could do the W Bush thing and “just trust that they will do the right thing” then that would be great…but we can’t, so we need to step in with power and shut them down or regulate them into submission or closure.

    It’s no different than having police to control speeding, or have guards protecting Rhinos from poaching, or signs on a highway warning of fines if you throw out your empty KFC chicken bucket. Left alone, many people will just scrape everything down to nothing. Even animal populations can do this in the wild, take over an environment, but nature sets limits…so until some natural catastrophy occures, we need government oversight to protect the environment.

    As for those who will complain about job loss…well, its going to run out soon anyway (there are only so many mountains) and something else will have to be done (for work) then. Now is the same as then….what, maybe 50 years from now? In geologic/universal time it’s insignificant, so it’s the same.

  • Doug Watts

    What is not reported here is that these coal operations are completely exempted from the provisions of the Clean Water Act that apply to you if you have a tiny brook in our backyard. If these coal mining operations were subjected to the same CWA standards which apply to a residential subdivision they could not even exist.

  • rabidmob

    “the EPA will set a standard level for permissible mining runoff allowed to reach waterways, and if a mining project is expected to exceed five times that number”

    Brilliantly bureaucratic! So if it only is only projected exceed by 4 times it can go ahead.

    I’d also expect the projections to be inaccurate.


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