Coal Lawsuit Puts EPA's Moutaintop Removal Rules on Trial

By Andrew Moseman | October 8, 2010 3:31 pm

MTMWhen the Environmental Protection Agency issued new rules in April attempting to crack down on mountaintop removal coal mining, you knew it was only a matter of time before the major push-back arrived. With elections looming and politicians looking to score some points at home, that time is now.

Joe Manchin, the Democratic governor of coal-rich West Virginia, says his state will sue the EPA and ask a U.S. District Court to throw out the agency’s strict new guidelines. For Mr. Manchin, the timing is certainly good:

Mr. Manchin is running for the U.S. Senate seat, formerly held by the late Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd, against Republican businessman John Raese, who has pulled ahead in some polls. The EPA’s policies on mining and climate change are controversial in West Virginia, where coal mining is a major industry supporting thousands of jobs. [Wall Street Journal]

EPA’s legal authority here rests in the Clean Water Act. Mountaintop removal mining, as the name suggests, involves detonating explosives on mountains to access coal deposits. Unsurprisingly, blowing up a mountaintop makes quite a mess, and the debris is often dumped in valleys where it can pollute waterways. That’s why the EPA says the technique changed the rules for getting a Clean Water Act permit.

To qualify, companies would have to show that their projects would not cause pollutant concentrations in surrounding waters to climb past roughly five times the normal level. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said the rules would protect 95 percent of aquatic life and ban operators from dumping mine waste in streams in nearly all cases. [The New York Times]

The main sources of scientific disagreement in West Virginia’s complaint (pdf) are the EPA’s three main reports on mountaintop removal; West Virginia says EPA should have incorporated more peer-reviewed research. You can read the government reports online (1, 2, 3).

Meanwhile, in neighboring Kentucky, the EPA is carrying on with the coal crackdown. The EPA recently blocked water permits for 11 mines that had already gained state-level approval.

In objection letters about the permits from its Atlanta office to the Kentucky Division of Water, the EPA cited the state’s own assessment of poor water quality in the regions where the permits are sought. And it said state regulators, in moving to approve the permits, failed to conduct analyses to determine whether proposed discharges from new surface mining would likely violate state water quality standards. [Louisville Courier-Journal]

And the coal litigation is just getting started: Environmental groups including Appalachian Voices have announced that they’re suing three Kentucky coal mining operations. The activists claim to have found evidence that the coal companies routinely falsified their discharge reports.

“In one case, we noticed that all 42 of the reported pollutant levels of first quarter of 2009 were exactly the same as the second quarter,” said Donna Lisenby of Appalachian Voices, which conducted the study. In some, the reports were signed and dated in advance of the date of the tests, she said. [Louisville Courier-Journal]

Related Content:
80beats: New EPA Rules Clamp Down on Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining
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: Obama Admin. Rolls Back Bush-Era Rules on Mining & Forests

Image: Wikipedia Commons

  • Rhacodactylus

    Regardless of the environmental impacts of this procedure, they clearly didn’t consult a PR guy when they came up with the name; there’s just no way to spin “mountaintop removal” as a positive.


  • Plaid

    Dear mountain killing coal companies: the more I learn about your companies , the more I prefer you all close down and all the miners go on public assistance. We love the mountains, and I’d love to take my grandkids there, so knock it off. The era of big business ignoring the earth is over. Not to mention, I, and most other people, prefer to have clean air to breathe and clean water to drink.

  • David H

    This is a rather one sided piece. I can agree that these mines are potential environmental disasters, but this article was hardly balanced, like a scientific discussion should be. It provides three extensive quotes from sources opposing the practice and one from a source discussing one opponent’s political campaign. No quotes from anyone on the other side. The article’s author merely summarizes his/her view of the other side as being nothing more than partisan politics. Can’t we hear the other side’s argument? Is it too dangerous to expose us to it? Just dismissing one side of the debate as irrelevant is hardly the way science should be conducted. Aren’t the energy and the jobs produced by these mines worthy of consideration? If in the end it is decided that the environmental damage outweighs the economic gain, then so be it. By why not let both sides present their cases evenly?

  • jeff

    Why not hear arguments from the coal promoters in an article about environmental laws and practices? How about because they have a well known history of having fought tooth and nail to keep the clean air and water acts from being enacted, of buying off politicians , of destroying the habitat of both animals and humans with no thought to the harm caused in the pursuit of greater wealth for the mine owners who have knowingly poisoned millions of acres of land, strip mined other peoples property without recompense and who do not care what filth you, your children or your grandchildern have to live in as long as the dollars keep flowing into their coffers. Hmm… We want better outcomes from our energy production ,not more of the same robber barony from our past.

  • David H


    How about hearing them out anyway? Maybe we’ll learn something new. Maybe they will point out the expenses of this type of mining versus other types; maybe they’ll give their views about the engineering involved and how they believe it is the soundest method to retrieve this coal. Who knows? Maybe all of their arguments can be easily defeated. You could point out that there are less damaging mining methods that could be tried, that coal could be mined from other locations, etc. But why not listen to them, especially when the decisions you’re discussing will impact their lives more than anyone else’s? Can you imagine how you would feel if a coal company decided that it is going to turn your back yard into a mine and didn’t really care how you felt about it, that you’re opinions were really irrelevant since you are just some whiny tree-hugger anyway? Would that be fair? In that situation, you would probably think hearing from all sides is a good idea. Really, what can it hurt?

  • Daniel J. Andrews

    Can’t hurt, but it is a time-waster. All their arguments and counter-arguments are well known and have been rebutted to death, even from an economic perspective. Even the continued use of coal as an energy source is very costly in the long-run when the environmental impacts (e.g. acid rain, drinking water contamination) regardless of how the coal is removed.

    The mining/coal industry has little problem with fabricating numbers, cherry-picking data, and generally sowing confusion in an effort to keep on with business as usual. Kind of hard to do the “teach the balance” thing with people who lie.

  • Chin Moya

    Personally, I actually do such as the name, I believe it’s form of neat. I do think it’s just a little easier to say. I do believe these are being very in line with their products and I relate to them whenever the retail price preceding the name.But, like with other things, we all have our own individual preferences. Each to his or her own, I usually say. What’s your decision?


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