The Environmental Protection Agency took the unusual step of revoking a permit Thursday for the country's largest surface mine, a setback for the controversial practice of "mountaintop removal" that helps produce 10 percent of the nation's coal.
The 2,300-acre operation at the Mingo Logan Coal Co.'s Spruce No. 1 coal mine in West Virginia has been mired in litigation since 1998.
The EPA's decision could affect dozens of other mining projects across Appalachia, where firms have been blasting the peaks off mountains for years to reach coal seams and then depositing the remaining rubble in surrounding valleys. While the federal government issued permits for hundreds of these activities under the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, the EPA adopted new environmental guidelines in April and is now reviewing 33 other pending permits.
The EPA's assistant administrator for water, Peter S. Silva, said the Spruce No. 1 coal mine, whose expansion was scaled back from 3,113 acres to win a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2007, "would use destructive and unsustainable mining practices that jeopardize the health of Appalachian communities and clean water on which they depend."
The mine would have employed 250 workers and produced about 44 million tons of coal over 15 years, while also burying more than seven miles of streams. The EPA used its authority under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act - which it has used only 12 other times in its history - to argue that the subsequent valley fills would harm the area's water quality, habitat and wildlife.
Kim Link, a spokeswoman for Mingo Logan parent company Arch Coal, said the company is "shocked and dismayed" at the EPA's decision, which she predicted "will have a chilling effect on future U.S. investment" in mining.
"Arch will continue to vigorously defend the permit, now in court, along with the right to have a predictable regulatory environment," Link said in a statement. "Absent court intervention, EPA's final determination to veto the Spruce permit blocks an additional $250 million investment and 250 well-paying American jobs."
The 2007 permit is pending before the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, which has held off ruling on the permit. The Justice Department asked for a delay until the EPA made a final decision on whether to veto it. In the meantime, the two sides agreed that the company could conduct limited mining with a couple of dozen workers within the watershed it had already disturbed.
Joe Lovett, executive director for the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, said the decision reflects growing scientific evidence that these projects are eroding the region's environment. Studies show that when rainwater is filtered through the jumbles of mining rock it emerges imbued with toxins, which in turn poisons mountain streams.
"This is a road map for what has to happen in this region for these other mines as well," said Lovett, who has been fighting the Spruce mine ever since a resident of West Virginia's Pigeonroost Hollow decided to challenge the Corps of Engineers' permit a dozen years ago. "Now EPA has to step up and apply this law and science to all these other mines."
The EPA's new mining guidelines bar operations that would exceed pollution limits of salt and specified toxins. Since it adopted those standards, it has given permits to three surface mining projects and has indicated it will not block three others.
In the case of the Spruce mine, the agency issued a statement Wednesday saying the company's proposed practices "will lead to unhealthy levels of salinity and toxic levels of selenium that turn fresh water into salty water." It also noted that after a year of negotiation, "Mingo Logan did not offer any new proposed mining configurations in response" to the agency's concerns.
Under the Clean Water Act, the Corps of Engineers reviews and approves the "dredge and fill" permit that allows mountaintop mining to proceed, but the EPA has the authority to intervene if it determines the waste dumping is too harmful or could be averted. The EPA has used this authority to veto one previously approved permit, for a Miami landfill in 1978.
Mining proponents, including industry officials and Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), urged President Obama to overturn the EPA's decision, although it is unclear how the White House could overrule the agency's finding.
The National Mining Association's president and CEO, Hal Quinn, questioned why "at a time of great economic uncertainty" the EPA would create yet another obstacle to mining activity.
"NMA urges the administration to step back from this unwarranted action and restore trust in the sanctity of lawfully granted and abided by permits and the jobs and economic activity they support," Quinn said.
Rockefeller predicted that "this is a decision that has a strong chance of being overturned by the courts," but environmentalists said they were just as confident they could prevail.
"The science completely validates what we have been saying for more than a decade: These types of mining operations are destroying our streams and forests and nearby residents' health, and even driving entire communities to extinction," said Janet Keating, executive director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. "This type of coal mining is destroying our cultural heritage and our future. We will continue our work to halt other illegal permits, both in-progress and pending."