Spruced Down: Going to the Mountaintop and Saving It

A 12-year battle with Big Coal over the future of one of the largest West Virginia mountaintop removal coal mines was resolved this week when the Environmental Protection Agency “vetoed” Spruce Mine No. 1.

Since 1998, the Sierra Club along with Coal River Mountain Watch, WV Highlands Conservancy, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Public Justice and the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment fought the mine.

And now, apparently it is stopped.

The EPA says that after “extensive scientific study,” a major public hearing in the state and more than 50,000 public comments, it is using its authority under the Clean Water Act to halt the disposal of mining waste in streams at Arch Coal’s Mingo-Logan Coal Company mine.

The agency said it’s “acting under the law and using the best science to protect water quality, wildlife and Appalachian communities, who rely on clean waters for drinking, fishing and swimming.” It has exercised this authority under the Clean Water Act’s Section 404(c) only 12 other times since 1972, reserving its use “for only unacceptable cases.”

“The proposed Spruce No. 1 Mine would use destructive and unsustainable mining practices that jeopardize the health of Appalachian communities and clean water on which they depend,” said EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Peter S. Silva. Silva’s statement continued: “Coal and coal mining are part of our nation’s energy future and EPA has worked with companies to design mining operations that adequately protect our nation’s waters. We have a responsibility under the law to protect water quality and safeguard the people who rely on clean water.”
EPA says the final determination on Spruce Mine came after discussions with Arch Coal spanning more than a year “failed to produce an agreement that would lead to a significant decrease in impacts to the environment and Appalachian communities.”

By preventing the mine from disposing waste into streams unless the company came up with a cleaner alternative, the mine permit is revoked, EPA said.

It added that despite its willingness to consider alternatives, Arch/Mingo Logan did not offer any new proposed mining configurations in response.

There are ways that coal companies can design their operations to make them more sustainable and that don’t include dynamiting the top of a mountain to access a coal seam. It seems however that coal companies would rather take the easiest and cheapest route to the coal.

The agency decision was based on findings that the project would have:

  • Disposed of 110 million cubic yards of coal mine waste into streams.
  • Buried more than six miles of high-quality streams in Logan County, West Virginia with millions of tons of mining waste from the dynamiting of more than 2,200 acres of mountains and forestlands.
  • Buried more than 35,000 feet of high-quality streams under mining waste, which would eliminate all fish, small invertebrates, salamanders, and other wildlife that live in them.
  • Polluted downstream waters as a result of burying these streams, which will lead to unhealthy levels of salinity and toxic levels of selenium that turn fresh water into salty water. The resulting waste that then fills valleys and streams can significantly compromise water quality, often causing permanent damage to ecosystems and streams.
  • Caused downstream watershed degradation that will kill wildlife, impact birdlife, reduce habitat value, and increase susceptibility to toxic algal blooms.
  • Inadequately mitigated for the mine’s environmental impacts by not replacing streams being buried, and attempting to use stormwater ditches as compensation for natural stream losses.

Arch Coal, based in St. Louis, issued a statement saying it was “shocked and dismayed’’ by the EPA’s “assault on a permit that was legitimately issued by the Army Corps of Engineers,” and vowed to continue fighting for the mine. It likely will go to court to overturn the EPA decision.

“In sharp contrast to the previous administration’s policies on mountaintop removal coal mining, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson is showing a strong commitment to the law, the science and the principles of environmental justice,” says Ed Hopkins, Sierra Club’s Environmental Quality Program Director.

The mountaintop victory for the environment is but one example of the EPA’s aggressive approach under the Obama Administration:

  • EPA unveiled plan to set standards for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on the nation’s heaviest polluters. Fossil fuel power plants and petroleum refineries will be most directly affected by the new rules, and considering that these sources account for 40 percent of the nation’s GHG pollution, they aim to have a high impact. (In the Dec. 24, 2010 TriplePundit.)
  • It issued binding rules in September 2009 that require companies to report their CO2 emissions.
  • The following month the U.S. entered the first day of the climate change conference in Copenhagen armed with an EPA endangerment finding that GHGs threaten public health and the environment and must be regulated.
  • Tough GHG emission control standards and reporting requirements on ocean vessels and marine diesel engines began Jan. 1. A related finding said various reduction scenarios could result in vehicle emission reductions of up 27 percent through 2030, which explains their recent actions on greenhouse gas regulations in the transport sector and general GHG reporting requirements for all companies.
  • Not content with its hard line on mountaintop coal removal, the agency issued rules requiring the safe disposal and management of coal ash from coal-fired power plants.

    Those are a few of the agency’s recent major actions; there are many smaller actions regarding clean water contaminants, chemicals and hazardous waste, almost on a daily basis. These might well be the halcyon days of EPA activism; the agency is pushing ahead on major environmental initiatives where few if any legislators or diplomats fear to tread.

writer, editor, reader and general good (ok mostly good, well sometimes good) guy trying to get by

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