MAC: Mines and Communities

EPA unveils new pollution limits that could curtail 'mountaintop' mining

Published by MAC on 2010-04-08
Source: Washington Post

EPA unveils new pollution limits that could curtail 'mountaintop' mining

David A. Fahrenthold, Staff Writer

Washington Post

1 April 2010

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday announced new pollution limits that could sharply curtail "mountaintop" mining, the lucrative and controversial practice that is unique to Appalachia.

The decision, announced Thursday afternoon by EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, is expected to end or significantly cut the use of "valley fills." At these sites, mining companies fill valleys to the brim with rock and rubble left over when peaks are sheared off to reach coal seams inside.

"Minimizing the number of valley fills is a very, very key factor," Jackson said. "You're talking about no, or very few, valley fills that are going to meet this standard."

Both supporters and opponents of the practice said that, because large valley fills are such a common part of mountaintop mines, the move could curtail the mines in general. Mountaintop mining provides only about 10 percent of U.S. coal, but it is a much larger part of the economy in some sections of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.

"It could mean the end of an era," said Luke Popovich of the National Mining Association. He said that to limit valley fills "is tantamount to saying the intent is to strictly limit coal mining in Appalachia," with serious economic consequences for regions dependent on the mines.

Joe Lovett of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment applauded the move -- saying it was in line with federal law like the Clean Water Act.

"Mountaintop mining, by its nature, destroys water," Lovett. Of this decision, he said, "I hope it means the beginning of the end."

"It could be, if implemented and enforced, the most significant enforcement to date," said Joan Mulhern, of the group Earthjustice. "The federal government has pretty much to date done nothing on this issue ... It's new, on mountaintop removal, that EPA is doing its job."

Jackson said the EPA would issue "guidance" to its local offices, which help review permits for new mountaintop mines. In that guidance, she said, the EPA sets an upper limit on one kind of pollution permitted downstream from valley-fill sites.

The pollutant -- odd as it sounds -- is salt. Scientists say that, when rainwater trickles through the jumbled rock inside a valley fill, it is imbued with salt and toxic chemicals that had previously been buried in rocks deep inside mountains.

The water can then poison small Appalachian streams and kill wildlife.

"The intent here is to tell people what the science is telling us, which is that it would be untrue to say that you could have numbers of valley fills, anything other than minimal valley fills, and not expect to see irreversible damage to stream health," Jackson said.

The rule would apply only to new permits, not mines currently operating. The mines would have to show that they had taken steps like storing excess rock away from streams.

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