In what is regarded by many as a sea change for the most reckless and destructive form of coal mining, mountaintop removal, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Friday issued a proposal to veto a large-scale mining permit already approved by the US Army Corps of Engineers (Washington Post; New York Times)
Arch Coal Inc.’s Spruce No. 1 mine would degrade surrounding water quality, fill more than 7 miles of headwater streams and affect more than 2,000 acres of forest, EPA said.
That would be really bad for the people who get their drinking water from those mountains. Never mind the violence done to some of the oldest and most beautiful mountains in America.
The Clean Water Act grants EPA authority to veto Corps-issued permits for surface mines on environmental grounds, but it has only used that authority 12 times since 1972. Never before has the agency vetoed an already-issued permit.
An EPA willing to flex its muscles on behalf of poor mountaineers whose livelihoods are being destroyed by mountaintop removal mining is a significant change from recent policy. “The EPA is showing signs of backbone on this issue,” says Rob Perks of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The agency has already acknowledged the science confirming that this extreme form of strip mining is incompatible with environmental protection.”
Peter Illyn, of the Christian environmental group Restoring Eden, says, “It’s about time. There’s no moral, ecological, or economic justification for the damage that mountaintop removal does to the people, to the water, and to the ecosystems of Appalachia.” Illyn’s group works with local partners in Appalachia to bring Christian leaders and college students to the region. “I’ve seen some of the most broken places on the globe, but I’ve never seen such egregious damage done in the name of cheap energy.”
Other signs also suggest that Big Coal’s days raping and pillaging the Appalachian Mountains may be numbered.
Fewer and fewer people are actually employed in mining coal in the Appalachians, as Big Coal has moved from underground mining to blasting the tops off mountains. The new hyper-violent strategy is cheaper, and employs a lot fewer people (some coal companies have laid off 90% of their workers). Coal’s constituency is being reduced to the barons who use profits to buy influence but don’t create jobs. More and more former miners are realizing the loss of their natural heritage. “The descendants of coal miners who live in the hollows and valleys believe that Appalachia can be saved,” says Allen Johnson of the West Virginia based advocacy group Christians for the Mountains.
A recent study from West Virginia University indicates that for every dollar of benefit coal mining produces, there are five dollars of health care costs borne by innocent bystanders. If coal companies weren’t able to offload their costs on third parties, mountaintop removal mining wouldn’t exist.
And David Roberts from Grist comments that even long-time coal defender Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) has shown little desire to defend the practice of obliterating his home state. (West Virginia’s junior senator, Jay Rockefeller, and much of their Congressional delegation, don’t seem to be similarly enlightened.)
We could get rid of mountaintop removal mining with a negligible effect on energy prices, since only 5% of the nation’s electricity comes from such intemperate practices. The temptation will be to try to tinker at the margins of current technologies. Such an attempt will be misguided, according to Perks of the NRDC. “What EPA needs to do now is finally recognize that when it comes to this practice, there’s no way to mitigate the damage by tweaking the regulations. You can’t mend mountaintop removal, you have to end it.”