EPA's Series of Messages Cloud Future of Mountaintop Mining in W.Va.

Residents of southern West Virginia react to a recent directive by the Environmental Protection Agency that seemed to first crack down on mountaintop mining but then ease off. Mountaintop mining is the process of blasting the peaks off mountains to get the coal inside.
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 11, 2009

ETHEL, W.Va. -- In one of the deepest, steepest corners of Appalachia, where the most important industry is shearing mountains down to flat-top stumps, everybody wants the same answer.

What did Washington just do?

About two weeks ago, the Environmental Protection Agency seemed poised to crack down on the "mountaintop" coal mines that are common in this region, which industry officials say would threaten thousands of jobs. The EPA said it had "significant concerns" about the mines -- in which peaks are legally blasted off to get at coal seams inside -- because neighboring streams are buried under displaced rock.

But later that day, the EPA suddenly seemed to play down its own worries, saying it thought the bulk of the projects would "not raise environmental concerns."

The episode has been seen as an early unsteady attempt by a White House with environmental ambitions to confront one of its most vexing problems: polluting, carbon-heavy, economically vital coal.

This week, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson -- making her first public comments about the letters -- said her agency did not intend to send a mixed message. She said that the EPA was not trying to stop all mountaintop removal but that it "is going to do its job" in checking 150 to 200 projects for environmental impact.

"This was not about making any kind of value judgment on a practice of mining," Jackson said in an interview. "This is about science. And what the law tells us to do is review these permits."

But here in southern West Virginia, the EPA's moves have left a powerful sense of uncertainty about the future of mountaintop mining. People also see this issue as a microcosm of the nation's ambivalence about coal.

"We don't have a clue" what the federal government is planning, said Roger Horton, a truck driver at a West Virginia mine who heads the group Citizens for Coal. "We want clarity. To do this, to me, is inhumane."

As Washington has become more focused on climate change, coal has become something like the new tobacco: publicly reviled, at least by some, but still deeply embedded in the economy. Coal produces dirty water when it is mined and greenhouse gases when it is burned, but it also accounts for about half of U.S. electric power, and coal mining provides about 82,000 jobs.

What happens here, in the heart of mountaintop-mining country, might be considered coal's unfiltered version.

"You know 'Almost heaven, West Virginia'? Well, now it's 'Almost level, West Virginia,' " said Teresa Perdue, 50, a resident of Ashford, W.Va., who has spoken out against mountaintop removal. Perdue was looking down at a vista that once included a rounded mountain and a valley, Bull Creek Hollow.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company