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Environmental regulations to curtail mountaintop mining

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

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.

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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.

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