January 15, 2011, In a move cheered by environmentalists, on Friday the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) vetoed a permit for the largest proposed mountaintop removal coal mine in the country. This marked the first time the EPA has made use of its authority under the Clean Water Act to overturn permits granted to mountaintop removal mines by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps of Engineers had originally granted a permit for the Spruce Mine in Logan County, West Virginia.
Environmental groups immediately praised the EPA for acting to protect communities in West Virginia from environmental and health effects of coal mining. Mountaintop removal, which is practiced exclusively in the Appalachian Mountains, is an especially destructive form of mining that involves removing mountaintops with explosives to expose underground coal deposits. Rubble from mountaintop removal sites is often dumped into nearby valleys and streams, contaminating the water with heavy metals and other toxins. The Clean Water Act gives the EPA authority to deny mountaintop removal projects that threaten the drinking water supplies of nearby communities.
“We applaud the EPA for following the law and the science and acting to protect the nation’s wildlife and the citizens of Appalachia from the devastation of mountaintop removal,” said Tierra Curry, a biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Mountaintop-removal coal mining must end, and today the agency took a historic step in the right direction.”
Mountaintop removal mining has become more common in West Virginia and other Appalachian states as easily accessible coal reserves have run out. Though the practice makes it possible to cost-effectively retrieve coal buried deep inside of mountains, it comes with heavy environmental costs and employs fewer people than other types of coal mining. Over the past several years environmental groups have urged Congress and the EPA to ban the practice of mountaintop removal and help affected states develop clean energy resources.
When the Obama administration took office in 2009, many activists hoped the EPA would end mountaintop removal immediately. Though that did not happen, the agency has been gradually taking steps to curtail the practice. When the EPA opened a public comment period on the Spruce Mine, 30,000 people submitted comments urging the project be vetoed. If allowed to move forward, the Spruce Mine would have destroyed 2,300 acres of forest and buried close to seven miles of valley streams.
According to Rory McIlmoil, author of a report on mountaintop removal commissioned by the Rainforest Action Network, “The impacts to the environment and surrounding communities that would result from the proposed mine were studied by EPA and independent researchers in great detail, and all of the studies concluded that the proposed operation would result in unacceptable adverse impacts.”
Environmental groups are urging the EPA to continue to invoke its Clean Water Act authority and veto permits for other mountaintop removal mines. “Forty years of surface mining have kept the region locked in poverty and devastated the health of people and the environment,” said the Center for Biological Diversity’s Curry, referring to the impacts on Appalachia. “The Obama administration must ban mountaintop removal and fund the creation of a green economy in this beautiful region.”
Other groups, worried that a new administration might overturn the Obama EPA’s efforts to slow mountaintop removal, have also urged Congress to pass a new law making the practice permanently illegal. The group I Love Mountains.org is pushing bills in both houses of Congress that would do this—the Clean Water Protection Act in the House of Representatives, and Appalachia Restoration Act in the Senate. “We need Congress to follow the leadership of the EPA by making these protections permanent,” said an email from I Love Mountains.org, soon after the Spruce Mine veto was announced.
Photo credit: Silvia Alba