Loyal Coal Tattoo readers will, I hope, forgive me for taking a moment to try to inject a little sanity into the discussion of this week’s U.S. EPA announcement that 79 pending coal-mining permits in four Appalachian states need further review — and perhaps some changes — before they can be granted Clean Water Act permits to bury a total of 170 miles of streams.
There’s been a lot of heat, and very little light, focused on this situation by coal industry officials, coal miners and coalfield political leaders. So let’s take a look at what EPA has said, and continues to say, about what’s wrong with these mining company permit applications.
First, some background. Just a little bit, anyway. If you don’t understand exactly what it is that EPA says mountaintop removal is doing to the Appalachian hills, streams and communities, go read this post — Exclusive: Blockbuster studies detail MTR impacts. And to understand what the coal industry has to say about why it wants to keep surface mining, read this post — Special guest blog exclusive: Why Surface Mine? And more importantly, if you don’t think coal companies can make changes in the way they operate so that environmental damage is avoided or minimized, read this — Exclusive: Patriot Coal says, we can mine it underground.
Now what has EPA done? They’ve done nothing more than try to get back to their required role of being a watchdog under the Clean Water Act, to make sure that the federal Army Corps of Engineers isn’t approving coal industry permit proposals that violate the law.
And while EPA hasn’t been especially good and putting a precise bar up to show the coal industry how much damage is too much, my guess is that the coal industry would be complaining even if EPA did do that. I don’t recall the industry complaining when the Bush administration dropped any consideration of specific limits on valley fill size when it was hijacking the government’s Environmental Impact Statement on mountaintop removal.
Now, as for this week’s EPA action. It’s worth taking a closer look at the letter that EPA assistant adminstrator Peter Silva wrote to Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works (chief of the Corps of Engineers). I’ve posted that letter here. EPA has also recently added to its Web site the final list of permits, a Q and A about how it developed the list, and an Excel file with tons of information on each permit.
EPA outlines in the letter its four major areas of concern about these permits. All are based on the Clean Water Act 404(b)(1) Guidelines, which you can read here. Here’s a summary of the EPA concerns:
1. Avoidance and minimization — EPA believes that the majority of the permit applications … have not yet adequately demonstrated that anticipated adverse environmental and water quality impacts have been fully avoided and minimized. The additional permit reviews, EPA said, “will allow the agencies , in coordination with the mining companies, to evaluate practicable opportunities to, for example, reduce the size and number of valley fills, in order to minimize potential adverse environmental and water quality impacts.”
2. Water quality — More than 80 percent of the permit proposals “exhibited the potential to cause or contribute to violations of applicable water quality standards.” EPA said it is “eager to work with the Corps and companies to assess modifications to mining plans, include additional water quality and biological monitoring provisions, and take other appropriate steps to address anticipated water quality concerns associated with these projects.”
3. Cumulative impacts — The Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act require consideration of all direct, indirect and cumulative environmental impacts associated with proposed coal mining projects. In order to fully assess potential cumulative impacts, permit applications must take into account “environmental and water quality effects associated with past, present and reasonably foreseeable surface coal mining activities within a watershed.” EPA is concerned “that additional information regarding potential cumulative impacts is needed to effectively assess” the permits on EPA’s list.
4. Mitigation — Headwater streams are vital components of watersheds. They provide critical ecological functions necessary for the health and productivity of downstream systems. EPA believes additional evaluation of the 79 permits is needed “to assess the effectiveness of existing mitigation plans to compensate for anticipated loss of functions associated with the proposed mining-related burial and mine through of headwater streams.”
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin told MetroNews this week that he has given up hope that EPA is trying to make mining more environmentally friendly. The Obama administration, the governor says, is out to stop all strip mining:
I was hoping they were looking for a better way and a better use that we could all agree upon. But that’s not their actions and that’s not what I see.
That’s not what EPA says … As Silva emphasized in his letter:
I look forward to working closely with the Army Corps of Engineers, with the involvement of the mining companies, to achieve a resolution of EPA’s concerns that avoids harmful environmental impacts and meets our energy and economic needs.
And even Congressman Rahall — certainly no opponent of mountaintop removal — said this week that EPA is just doing its job:
“And I think that is being fair to coalfield residents and to the industry.”