EPA Delays Mountaintop Removal Proposals

Obama's administration tightens coal mining regulations to improve public and environmental health, but local miners worry about economic impact

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The coal mining industry may have been dealt a huge blow. On Sunday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that the 79 permits for proposed mountaintop coal mining projects in four central and southern Appalachian states will be subject to further, comprehensive review over the next 13 days.

The extension grants the EPA, in collaboration with the Department of Interior and the Army Corps of Engineers, two weeks to continue the review of the permits in order to guarantee that the proposals will “ensure compliance with the Clean Water Act and the protection of this nation’s public health and environment.”

While this development is far from what many environmental activists and outdoor enthusiasts have called for, the EPA’s “stay-of-execution” on the permits falls in line with what President Obama’s administration announced in June.

Although the administration did not promise to stop mountaintop mining, it did pledge to improve the mountaintop removal review process, increase its transparency and involve the public in the mining conversation, especially when the proposed projects potentially adversely affect the water quality and the health of the surrounding ecosystems and communities.

“Everything changed immediately after Obama took office,” said Lenny Kohm, the campaign director for Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit environmental protection organization based in Boone, N.C.

”It’s a whole different ballgame,” Kohm continued. “It’s been like a revolution.”

Following Obama’s inauguration, members of Appalachian Voices, other like-minded organizations and the people living in the coalfields have been meeting regularly with the President’s Council on Environmental Quality and the EPA. Kohm explained that the EPA is suddenly invested in more than just straight science. They want to meet with the coalfield people—the people directly affected by mountaintop removal.

Mountaintop mining occurs on the summit or summit ridge of a mountain and involves using explosives to blast off up to 1,000 vertical feet of mountain to reveal underlying coal seam. The excess rock is then transferred to “holler fills” or “valley fills,” covering hundreds of miles of streams. According to information provided by Appalachian Voices and partner organization I Love Mountains, mountaintop removal is responsible for the destruction of more than 500 mountains, the deforestation of 1.2 million acres of deciduous hardwood forest, the contamination of watersheds, the polluting and physical devastation of neighboring communities and harmfully impacts local ecosystems.

Accordingly, there is a strong push to stop mountaintop mining (of which the coal mined only accounts for 5 percent of the U.S.’s coal production).

Proponents of mountaintop removal consist predominantly of Big Coal companies. Ads taken out by companies like Arch Coal in Appalachian newspapers stress the term mountaintop mining rather than mountaintop removal; Arch also contends that mountain mining is “good for West Virginia,” that “it’s good business,” that it “respects our heritage,” and that “it’s the right thing to do.”

Environmentalists disagree.

Though the EPA’s decision marks a milestone for the communities that have long protested the removal of mountaintops for coal mining, this “stay-of execution” might just be that. And, many concerned activists and Appalachia community members argue that a more detailed and thorough review process is not enough.

Kohm explained that although many of the citizens of Appalachia feel encouraged by the new administration and the EPA’s pledge to ensure that all projects adhere to Clean Water Protection Act regulations, there still remains a lot of skepticism and a serious call for urgent action.

“People living in the coalfields are hopeful, but they’ve heard promises before, and as we’re speaking, this is going on,” Kohm explained. “The coal industry sees the writing on the wall and they’re going to get what they can as quickly as they can.”

With 79 more potential mountaintop removal projects in the government’s hands, Obama and his administration will be forced to keep stepping up and keep it transparent. In less than two weeks time environmentalists, Appalachian citizens and Big Coal lobbyists will see if under Obama these groups really are playing a whole new ballgame.

For more information about mountaintop mining or to get involved in the campaign to halt mountaintop removal, visit http://www.ilovemountains.org, an action resource center site produced by Appalachian Voices, a grassroots, environmental organization dedicated to protecting the Appalachian Mountains.

––Jessie Lucier

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