Can Coal Miners Get Their Sludge Together Before EPA Takes Action?

The tide may be turning against mountaintop removal coal mining in the United States, as last month marked the first time that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommended that a permit for a surface coal mine be repealed. An EPA review of Arch Coal’s proposed Spruce 1 project in West Virginia stated that the project could not be carried forward without adverse impacts to the surrounding Appalachian environment.

Mountaintop Removal Mining

Mountaintop removal is a type of surface mining that removes mountaintops by use of explosives to expose coal ridges. The debris from the blasting typically is dumped into nearby valleys, creating unsightly and ecologically damaging “valley fills.” The adverse environmental effects of mountaintop removal and valley fills include contamination of the soil and local water supply, the burying of streams with coal sludge, and deforestation.

In the United States, mountaintop removal operations are concentrated in the states of Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee. So far, some 500 mountains surrounding about 1.2 million acres of forest in central and southern Appalachia have been demolished. An estimated 2,500 tons of explosives are used daily.

The practice affects local communities significantly. Most towns in surrounding mine areas are now deserted as residents have been tormented by leaky coal sludge impoundments, flyrock (rock thrown from the blasting of mountaintops), increased flooding from deforestation and the redirection of valley fill slopes, and contaminated drinking water. In several instances, citizens have been put in direct danger from the effects of mountaintop removal. In one case, a boy was killed when flyrock fell down a mountain and crashed into his home. In a more recent event, 1.7 cubic yards of fly ash, a byproduct of coal combustion, escaped from the holding area of a Tennessee power plant, not only contaminating the local water supply but also damaging homes and causing evacuations of dwellings.

The health effects of surface coal mining are impossible to ignore. The water near Charleston, West Virginia, has been found to be polluted with chemicals and heavy metals including arsenic, barium, lead, and manganese. The U.S. government reports that exposure to high levels of these chemicals could lead to cancer or complications with kidneys and nervous systems.

An assessment of mortality rates in Appalachia revealed that coal-mining areas in the region showed increased mortality and morbidity compared to other areas of Appalachia and the nation. Factors contributing to these higher rates include poverty, low education levels, financial stress, and increased environmental degradation from mining pollutants.

Given the many disadvantages that mining areas have faced in the past 30 years, is there light at the end of the tunnel for U.S. mining communities, or for the surrounding environment?

Mining employment has changed significantly in the past three decades. In eastern Kentucky, the number of mining jobs declined from 50,000 in 1979 to just over 13,000 in 2004. The increase in surface mining is a major factor. Underground mining in the United States is more costly to operate, requires more manpower, and is characterized by a largely depleted coal resource. Meanwhile, surface mining practices, such as mountaintop removal, employ fewer workers due to greater automation and the abundance of thin coal seams at the surface.

As mining technologies improve, the jobs inevitably do not go to local miners but rather to individuals outside the Appalachian region who have more formal education in operating newer surface mining technologies. This may lead to further poverty and economic distress of local communities.

According to a coal industry study prepared by the Sierra Club, coal mining does help local Appalachian economies through the creation of jobs, generation of tax revenue, and reduced cost for electricity. But the study also points out that when all environmental and health externalities are accounted for, coal mining costs the residents of Appalachia more than $100 million annually—costs that are being paid by society and not by the coal producers who are making the profits..

The EPA is currently reassessing mountaintop removal permits because it believes that the related environmental concerns have not been fully addressed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the authority that is currently responsible for investigating, assessing, and approving project permits, but the EPA has the power to veto these permits under the Clean Water Act, if all environmental issues are not dealt with accordingly. This current exercise of the EPA’s veto power is not boding well with Republicans and coal-state Democrats who feel that such delay in the approval process is unnecessary. These groups have criticized the EPA for not being as efficient or clear-cut as the Army Corps.

Environmental activists have long accused the Army Corps’ permitting process of being lenient and unresponsive, but the process now will now receive more scrutiny with the EPA’s involvement. The associated delay has upset many political groups, who state that the EPA is trying to “sabotage” all coal mining in the eastern United States. Although the EPA has not yet exercised its veto power on specific projects such as the Spruce 1 project, coal producers will seemingly no longer have free rein for their projects.

But the tables may again be turning following the recent midterm elections that gave Republicans control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Now that many of the Democrats who voted last year in favor of the Waxman-Markey bill have left, the House now likely will include more opponents of the EPA’s environmental vetoes. As chairmanships get assigned, the future of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s support for increased environmental regulation and oversight is threatened: the expected new chairman, Joe Barton from Texas, is a well-known climate denier in the House.

If all goes according to the EPA’s plan, by the end of this year the agency will be rescinding the mining permit that allows Arch Coal to extract coal from the mountains of Logan County, West Virginia. And in early October, Tennessee became the first state government to submit a petition to the federal government to decree state-owned ridgelines as unbefitting for surface mining, in order to protect “cultural, recreational and scientific resources.”

As the debate continues on the future of U.S. surface coal mining, there appears to be an increasing plea for the termination of mountaintop removal. Yet no significant outcome or decision will prove final until the EPA decides whether it will use its veto power to prevent the extraction of coal. The decision to deny such permits is critical for a sustainable future, so let’s hope that the EPA makes the right decision, at least for the sake of the environment.

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