Environmental regulations to curtail mountaintop mining

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 2, 2010; A04

The Obama administration on Thursday imposed strict new environmental guidelines that are expected to sharply curtail "mountaintop" coal mining, a controversial practice that has enriched Appalachia's economy while rearranging its topography.

The announcement by the Environmental Protection Agency ended months of bureaucratic limbo on the issue. It was hailed by environmentalists but condemned by coal industry officials, who said it would render a technique that generates about 10 percent of U.S. coal largely impractical.

At "mountaintop removal" mines, which are unique to Appalachian states, miners blast the peaks off mountains to reach coal seams inside and then pile vast quantities of rubble in surrounding valleys. Under the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, hundreds of such sites received federal permits.

But on Thursday, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said those "valley fills" will be curtailed. She cited new scientific evidence showing that when rainwater is filtered through the jumbles of rock, it emerges imbued with toxins, poisoning small mountain streams.

"You're talking about no, or very few, valley fills that are going to meet this standard," Jackson said.

The guidelines were announced at a time when the administration is making clear how it plans to proceed on key elements of its environmental agenda. Also on Thursday, the EPA and the Transportation Department finalized new fuel efficiency standards for cars. And on Wednesday, President Obama announced plans to open large areas for offshore drilling, a concession intended to build Senate support for a climate change bill.

The new mining guidelines bar operations that would exceed pollution limits of salt and specified toxins. Experts said few of the region's existing valley fills could have met the new standards.

"It could mean the end of an era," said Luke Popovich of the National Mining Association. "That is tantamount to saying the intent is to strictly limit coal mining in Appalachia."

The Washington region is connected to mountaintop mining through its power lines: many local power plants buy coal from areas where the mines are dominant. Earlier Thursday, in fact, a "guerrilla" environmental group distributed fake letters from Pepco around the District and Maryland, saying that the utility would stop using coal from mountaintop mines.

The closest previous parallel to the EPA's announcement Thursday was a set of guidelines announced at the end of the Clinton administration, then erased by the Bush White House before they had any real effect, said Joe Lovett of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment.

"The administration is doing its job," he said.

Coal companies say mountaintop mines are necessary to reach coal seams that are too thin, or too close to the surface, for traditional tunnel mining. Instead, they take the mountain off the top of the coal.

Afterward, rock is often piled up to form a mountain shape. But there is usually excess rock, which goes into surrounding valleys. Between 2000 and 2008, companies received permits for 511 valley fills. These often look like giant plugs, filling Appalachian ravines to the brim: in all, government data show, the plugs -- placed end to end -- would span 176 miles.

Mountaintop mining plays an outsize role in places such as southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, where many jobs depend on the coal industry -- and satellite maps show flat, brown mine sites spreading among green mountains.

"Coal mining is the broad-shouldered Atlas of West Virginia's economy," said Jason Bostic of the West Virginia Coal Association.

He said Thursday's move will have huge economic implications, and might be interpreted to limit other kinds of mining or highway construction that involves filling in stream valleys. "It really represents a grim, crippling picture," he said.

In March 2009, the EPA announced a review of pending mine permits. But in the months since, the agency has approved some permits and denied others, leaving people on both sides of the issue unclear about the administration's policy and rationale.

Jackson said the EPA will now instruct its local offices not to approve new valley-fill permits that are likely to produce a certain level of pollution in waters downstream. To mitigate those effects, mines could take measures such as storing rock away from streambeds.

"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 EPA said it will seek public comment on the new guidelines, but that they will take effect immediately. The new rules will apply only to future permits, not to existing operations.

So, despite the celebration by environmentalists over Thursday's announcement, it meant little to Frankie Mooney, 61, a resident of Twilight, W.Va. He said there are mountaintop mining sites on several sides of his home and that valley fills upstream taint the water.

"We had a rain the other day and the river run gray," Mooney said in a telephone interview. "Before the valley fill, it was clear."

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