This week, a federal judge in Washington D.C. ruled against the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its administrator, Lisa Jackson, and in favor of the state of West Virginia and the National Mining Association. The judge decided that the EPA illegally overstepped its authority by creating and enforcing water quality restrictions on West Virginia coal mining operations, and that the EPA should have left these decisions to state officials.
Mountaintop removal coal mining operations – a form of surface mining that gathers coal from the summit of mountains – commonly dump waste water into waterways in the Appalachian valleys. The polluted water disrupts biodiversity in streams and can pose a health risk to people who live in the area. EPA regulations prohibited the mining industry from disposing of the waste water if doing so would violates state water quality standards or greatly degrade national waterways, or if the process could be replaced with a viable, eco-friendly alternative.
Mountaintop removal mining in itself is controversial, as scientists and experts have concluded that it is environmentally disruptive and a risk to public health. In order to mine the coal, the land around the area has to be deforested and is often never restored or reforested to its natural appearance.
The move by United States District Judge Reggie B. Walton disappointed environmental activists, but was lauded by the mining industry, West Virginia state officials – including the state’s environmental protection secretary, Randy Huffman, and its former Democratic governor and current United States senator, Joe Manchin– and Democratic Kentucky governor Steve Beshear. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit claimed that the new regulations worsened the economy by eliminating jobs from the mining industry.
Coal has long been among the country’s most popular source of inexpensive energy, but it is notorious to environmental and health advocates for producing soot and ash, which can damage the environment and can result in serious health complications in children and adults (such as asthma or other respiratory illnesses). The federal government has been attempting to regulate mountaintop removal coal mining operations in three high-producing states (West Virginia, Wyoming, and Kentucky) but has not been successful in enforcing these regulations or agreeing on a mutual plan of action with the mining industry.
Judge Walton recognized the need for environmentalists and miners to compromise, but implied that this issue should be worked out between the two parties by saying, “How to best strike a balance between, on the one hand, the need to preserve the verdant landscapes and natural resources of Appalachia and, on the other hand, the economic role that coal mining plays in the region is not, however, a question for the Court to decide.”
The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy’s Mining Committee’s chair, Cindy Rank, said that the ruling “continues to put us living in Appalachia in the unconscionable position of having to document our own communities’ sickness, disease and other unexplained health impacts as reasons to finally stop the devastating practice of mountaintop removal coal mining.”
The State Journal, a West Virginia business newspaper, reported last week that the coal mining regulations rallied West Virginians who were for and against the EPA’s laws in separate protests. Coal mining advocates congregated to express concern over how the new laws would affect the local economy, citing statistics that 2,000 coal miners have been laid off as a result of the federal government’s attempt to regulate and reduce mountaintop removal coal mining.
Opponents of coal mining also planned to assemble at a mountaintop mine to raise awareness of how the practices employed in coal mining can harm public health and safety, and to encourage people to take action on the issue.
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