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Shock and Awe: EPA Halts Largest Mountaintop Coal Mine

Bill DiBenedetto | Tuesday October 20th, 2009 | 1 Comment

MTNblast_osmThe Environmental Protection Agency is serious: It really is taking on Big Coal in a big way.

Following up on word last month that it would delay action on 79 mountaintop coal mining projects (EPA Takes on the Coal Industry), the agency on Friday moved to halt the Clean Water Act permit for the nation’s largest proposed mountaintop removal coal mining site, the Spruce No. 1 Mine in Logan County, West Virginia.

EPA letters to  the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and mine owner Arch Coal say it “has reason to believe” that the Spruce No. 1 mine, as currently authorized, “may result in unacceptable adverse impacts to fish and wildlife resources.”

It will issue a proposed determination to “restrict or prohibit the discharge of dredged and/or fill material at the Spruce No. Mine project” under the provisions of the Clean Water Act and specifically its Section 404(c).

The provision, never exercised until now, gives EPA the authority to “prohibit, deny or restrict” the use of any defined area for specification as a disposal site. If the determination is finalized the Spruce mine is kaput.

EPA says that while the Spruce No. 1 permit contains some provisions that address concerns about the environmental and water quality impacts on the surrounding region’s watershed, “further modifications to the permit are necessary if the project is to meet fully the requirements of the Clean Water Act” and agency regulations.

While that wording might appear to give Arch some room to fix its permit and wriggle out of an adverse determination, EPA’s unusual and precedent-setting move will require some deft and difficult wriggling.

For example the EPA states that specific to the Spruce project, the Little Coal River watershed has 98 miles of impaired streams, representing 33 percent of the watershed. Meanwhile the Coal River sub-basin has 743 miles of impaired streams, or about 30 percent of the sub-basin.

The Spruce No. 1 Mine “represents the largest authorized mountaintop removal operation in Appalachia and occurs in a watershed where many streams have been impacted by previous mining activities,” EPA explains. While the project has been modified to reduce project impacts, EPA continues that it will “still bury more than seven miles of streams.” And there is the potential for additional discharges to cause further stream degradation.

“We are shocked that the EPA would take such an action in light of the strong support for the Spruce permit voiced by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection,” says a statement from Arch Coal and its Mingo Logan Coal Company subsidiary.

Arch calls Spruce No. 1 the “most carefully scrutinized and fully considered mine permit” in West Virginia’s history, adding that the permit was “legally issued in 2007” with the intimate involvement of the EPA. That makes the EPA’s recent action “even more difficult to understand,” Arch says.

While Arch tries to figure it all out – maybe it will remember and better understand the election of 2008 for starters – the Sierra Club is applauding the EPA “for its reliance on the most recent scientific studies on water quality impacts from mountaintop removal mining, as well as its attention to the overall impacts of this and other existing and proposed mines in the immediate area.

“Local residents have been actively challenging the approval of this permit…for more than a decade. This massive mine would have buried seven miles of streams, destroyed thousands of acres of land and disrupted local communities,” says Ed Hopkins, the Club’s Director of Environmental Quality.

Shocking is the correct word. This is the first time since the enactment of the Clean Water Act 37 years ago that that the EPA has used its Section 404 authority to review a previously permitted project. It reflects the agency’s deep concerns about the magnitude and scale of the anticipated direct, indirect and cumulative adverse environmental impacts associated with the project.

Shocking because Big Coal is no longer getting its way, for what, the first time in memory?

Shocking also because there are 12 other mining operations that are either proposed or authorized but not yet constructed in the Coal River Sub-Basin with potential cumulative impacts on more than 35 miles of stream channels that have not been sufficiently analyzed, EPA warns.

They could be next. This is one reality show that’s worth watching.


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