Coal Tattoo

The press coverage of yesterday’s big EPA announcement on mountaintop removal was mostly along the lines of what my buddy Dave Fahrenthold wrote in The Washington Post:

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday announced new pollution limits that could sharply curtail “mountaintop” mining, the lucrative and controversial practice that is unique to Appalachia.

jacksonmug2And with good reason … you don’t have to go far beyond this quote from EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to come to that conclusion:

You’re talking about no or very few valley fills that are going to be able to meet standards like this.

So why, then, did Jackson also insist that stopping Appalachian coal mining wasn’t what this new set of water quality guidelines is all about?  I mean, check out this other quote:

Let me be clear. This is not about ending coal mining. This is about ending coal mining pollution.

I mean, really … if President Obama wanted to stop most strip-mining in Appalachia, there might be more straight-forward ways to getting much closer to that goal.  EPA could start a rulemaking to put the “fill rule” back the way it was, or the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement over at the Interior Department could announce it is going to apply the “buffer zone rule” to the footprint of valley fills.

Or heck, Obama could seek legislation to just ban the practice … after all, both Sen. Robert C. Byrd and Rep. Nick J. Rahall have indicated they think there’s support in Congress for doing just that.

By Lisa Jackson outlined a more complex task she says EPA is trying to achieve:

The people of Appalachia shouldn’t have to choose between a clean, healthy environment in which to raise their families and the jobs they need to support them. That’s why EPA is providing even greater clarity on the direction the agency is taking to confront pollution from mountaintop removal.

We will continue to work with all stakeholders to find a way forward that follows the science and the law. Getting this right is important to Americans who rely on affordable coal to power homes and businesses, as well as coal communities that count on jobs and a livable environment, both during and after coal companies move to other sites.

In fact, in its new guidance memo, EPA outlines a variety of ways that it suggests coal companies try to comply with the new conductivity standards. Tops among them is “sequencing” of valley fills when a mine proposes multiple fills:

… Valley fills that are part of the same project or complex should generally be constructed one at a time, unless site-specific data suggest no potential downstream water quality concerns;

… The permittee should demonstrate compliance with applicable water quality standards, and that significant degradation has not occurred, at each valley fill before the permittee may begin construction of subsequent valley fills.

And, while the Hobet 45 permit is not a perfect example — it is a pretty unique situation that isn’t an easy template for mining engineers to follow — it is obvious evidence that EPA is willing to allow one mine to bury multiple miles of streams with waste rock and dirt.

Two things remain important to remember.

First, Central Appalachian coal production is headed toward a major, major decline — with or without additional restrictions on mountaintop removal (or greenhouse gases rules for that matter).  So whatever surface mining’s economic benefits to the region, policymakers need to get ready for those benefits to begin to evaporate.

Second, the industry just can’t argue with a straight face that mountaintop removal isn’t having negative impacts on the environment in Appalachia. The science that says otherwise is too overwhelming to ignore. Undoubtedly, the two new EPA studies released yesterday (see here and here)  will only add to that science.

So now what?

Well, EPA is having public comment periods — and a Science Advisory  Board review — of its guidance and new studies. It’s a long comment period, too — through December of this year. A Federal Register notice will be published soon to spell out how to comment.

And here in West Virginia, there’s going to be a comment period — and a major public hearing — on EPA’s efforts to block the Spruce Mine.

One major question is what kind of discussion the people of the region want to have now on these matters … Do we want to actually discuss them, or just shout down the views we disagree with? West Virgina Gov. Joe Manchin seemed to take a positive step on this the other day when he dialed down his rhetoric about the Spruce mine.  But my good friend the governor seems to have taken one step up and two steps back yesterday, by issuing a statement about how he would make sure West Virginians are heard “loud and clear” about the new EPA guidance. Why loud, governor? Wouldn’t it be enough for your views to be heard clearly?

Finally, WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman told me that his agency is going to continue to move ahead with its own guidance for dealing with the same issues that EPA has now already issued guidance on.

A key issue will be if WVDEP makes a serious, strong effort at real guidance that protects water quality — rather than coming up with whatever the industry will not oppose and issuing that. Nobody else has written much about what Randy and WVDEP are up to in this regard. But I’m very anxious to see what they come up with.

And how will the coal industry respond to all of this? With more radio and TV ads that pretend none of this is really an issue? Or will smart people working for coal companies sit down at the table and try to begin, as Lisa Jackson said, “ending coal mining pollution”?

These things together will tell us all a lot about whether a top EPA official, Peter Silva, was right a few months back when he said:

The notion of ‘clarity’ invoked by some West Virginia officials and industry representatives has too often meant letting coal companies do as they please, with little or no consideration for the harmful impacts on Americans living in coal country.