Here’s a change to savor after the approach taken by the previous administration: the Environmental Protection Agency is actually taking major steps to protect the environment and might even smack-down the powerful coal industry and its well-heeled lobby.
An almost startling case in point: The EPA is withholding action on 79 pending mountaintop coal-mining projects in four Appalachian states while it takes a detailed review of the permit applications.
Or to put it even more strongly, the agency determined that all 79 of the proposed projects under review would violate the Clean Water Act.
In an initial review of the applications, the EPA found that all of the proposed projects likely would cause water quality impacts that trigger additional reviews under the Clean Water Act.
Those initial findings however do not automatically mean that some or all of the 79 permits won’t eventually be authorized or that the agency is placing a moratorium on surface coal mining.
But it does mean that the regulatory process will continue in a somewhat less trusting environment for the coal industry and that that the industry will have to do much more to show why the applications are needed and, by the way, legal.
“The fact that every single one of these pending permits would violate the Clean Water Act shows how irresponsibly callous and sloppy these mining companies really are,” says Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. The EPA announcement “is also a testament to the Obama Administration’s commitment to science, transparency and enforcing environmental safeguards,” he adds.
And it’s not just the EPA doing this: The extended reviews will be carried out under an “enhanced coordination process” between EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed under an interagency Memorandum of Understanding on surface coal mining that was facilitated by the Council on Environmental Quality and signed by the EPA, the Corps, and the Department of Interior.
The collaboration process, announced in June, was created to strengthen the environmental review of the pending mining applications and to address the backlog of permit decisions that has occurred as a result of environmental challenges. In a nutshell, the idea is to ensure compliance with the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws.
The EPA decision “affirms that no one is above the laws designed to protect clean water in places like Appalachia,” Pope said. “For eight long years mountaintop removal coal mining permits were allowed to move forward, no matter the cost to the nearby communities, mountaintops and valleys.”
“The administration pledged earlier this year to improve review of mining projects that risked harming water quality,” said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. “Release of this preliminary list is the first step in a process to assure that the environmental concerns raised by the 79 permit applications are addressed and that permits issued are protective of water quality and affected ecosystems.”
There’s more. The EPA plans to revise the existing standards for water discharges from coal-fired plants to reduce pollution “and protect America’s surface water.”
Wastewater discharged from coal ash ponds, air pollution control equipment, and other equipment at power plants can contaminate drinking water sources, cause fish and other wildlife to die and create other detrimental environmental effects, the EPA says in an interim report.
The EPA completed a multi-year study of power plant wastewater discharges earlier this year. The final study is scheduled for publication later this year.
The decision to revise the current effluent guidelines is “driven by the high level of toxic-weighted pollutant discharges from coal-fired power plants and the expectation that these discharges will increase significantly in the next few years as new air pollution controls are installed,” the agency say.
It’s hard to imagine the Bush administration ever saying no to the coal industry, and in fact that never happened. Major polluters forced to comply with the Clean Water Act? Stronger effluent regulations on the industry?
Now there’s a concept; perhaps the times are indeed a’ changing.