Mountaintop removal ‘clarity’: OK, so now what?

April 2, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.

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.

10 Responses to “Mountaintop removal ‘clarity’: OK, so now what?”

  1. robbe says:

    Thanks God! The winds, they are a’changin! I’m also really concerned about what the DEP is up to in regards to establishing their own water quality emissions. I happened to be present in a Senate EIM committee meeting when Randy H. was discussing this issus, and he clearly stated that he was engaging in the effort to come up with “clear standards” for water quality in order to be able to issue MTR permits which the EPA couldn’t easily challenge. Is this consistent with the stated priorities of the WV Department of Environmental Protection’s stated mission to protect water quality in this state, or is this the WV Dpt. of Every Permit Granted?? I think our clean water is a much more valuable commodity than the remaining coal reserves in this state… preserving our water quality should take priority over every mining activity – oil & gas drilling, too! As for Gov. Manchin’s statement about West Virginians making their voices heard loud and clear… I plan to state my SUPPORT for the EPA’s action LOUDLY & CLEARLY, and I encourage all proud West Virginia residents, who care about the water quality and unique ecosystems we are blessed with, to join me.

  2. Vernon says:

    I wish the DEP would use science rather than politics, but what I foresee happening is that coal companies will submit permits that claim they’ll have conductivity below 300 microsiemens per cm. Those permits will be approved, and if the DEP ever notices that they actually exceed 500, they’ll issue a slap on the wrist or let several violations accumulate over the course of several years, negotiate a settlement or extension, and keep right on polluting. Regardless of how clear and strict the rules of the game are, they’re useless if the referee is at the concession stand. EPA still needs to take over the WV DEP NPDES program if this is going to work.

  3. Scott14 says:

    Well, Ken. Out of the mouths of babes comes truth. “Were talking about few or no new valley fills” That is all you need to hear. I havent read your morning piece yet but I hope you included that quote in it. It isnt likely that in 5 years any new mine sites of any type will be built in the southern coal fields of appalachia. Sad sad day for coal miners and their familys. Canadian oil sands is sounding better and better!

  4. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    I included that quote in two different blog pieces and in my print story. For obvious reasons, that was the quote that I think just about every reporter put in their story.

    Of course, not everyone used the other line that Lisa Jackson gave us:

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

    Have you read the EPA guidance document, Scott14? I’m wondering your thoughts on what they had to say about how companies might comply with these new guidelines.

    As I wrote in the post above, it’s pretty easy to just say — well, that’s it for coal mining … but surely some smart folks in the industry are looking more closely to see what they might do to comply.


  5. Vernon says:

    Scott, you might not get a warm reception if you go to Canada. People all over the world are opposing the destruction and pollution that fossil fuel exploitation provides their communities:

  6. Mike Roselle says:

    It seems to me that if the pending permits do not meet EPA standards, then the existing ones do not either. Is the EPA going to step up monitoring of active MTR sites? What happens when it is discovered that they do not meet this standard and never could? Are they simply grandfathered?

  7. Sam says:

    Everyone is so concerned with water quality in West Virginia and runoff from the mine sites. I would be willing to bet that there is more salt and oil runoff from our highways and parking lots after one hard rain then there is from one mine site in one year’s time. Think about it, how many millions of tons of salt and antifreeze do states use each winter on their highways? And it all runs directly in the streams and rivers. There is not an industry or manufacturing process in this country that does not produce some type of pollutant runoff. Yet the coal industry is the one that is being scrutinized for it practices. Let’s face facts, it is not the runoff, it is the fact that the tops of mountains are removed in this process and it temporarily destroys the habit for the forest animals and looks ugly. So does logging, but the EPA is not using the clean water act as and loop hole to stop this industry. And why are only the Appalachian states with mountain top removal sites being targeted and not all states that have surface mining sties?

    What about the economic impact this ruling will have? Lisa Jackson and Peter Silva have no idea of the economic impact this ruling will have on West Virginia and the other Appalachian states that have mountain top removal sites. Why? Because the EPA has not done an economic impact study and could care less. The statements Ms Jackson made shows that the EPA’s goal is to end the practice of mountain top removal. Yes, the EPA has done a lot to ban the practice but nothing to help the mining companies with alternatives.
    Let’s back up a few years. Under the George W. Bush administration, West Virginia was enjoying a 3.7% unemployment rate in August, 2008. The lowest in West Virginia history and in the country at the time, we were one of only five states with a balanced budget and a surplus. This was due mainly to the booming coal industry in West Virginia. By the time of the election in November, 2008 the unemployment rate had climbed to 5%.

    This rise in unemployment was in part the result of statements made by then candidate Obama, that he would seek to end the use of coal in general as a source of fuel, anticipating what was going to happen, mine operators starting laying off worker and canceling order for new equipment. I know this because my job and my wife’s job were affected by this cut back by the coal industry. This not only effected the industries in West Virginia that support mountain top removal but equipment manufactures like Caterpillar, who laid of thousand of worker in January 2009.

    In July, 2009 President Obama asked the EPA to review seventy permits that had been issued by the Army Corp of Engineers, the impact was felt again with more layoffs, furloughs’ and salary cuts. Today, April, 2010 the unemployment rate is 11% in West Virginia. Tell me this is not a direct impact of what the EPA has done to the coal industry over the last sixteen months.

    When the EPA could not find anything wrong with the permits the Corp of Engineers had issued they turn to the clean water act. That is the only prevision they could use to put a stop to the permits.

    West Virginia cannot take much more of the beat down being put by the Obama administration. We are not receiving much help from Senators or Congressmen either; they have sided with the EPA and the president on the subject.

    One more thing, if these were Union mine site and UMWA jobs, we would not be having this conversation!!!

    Anyone in West Virginia that is taking sides with the EPA has a job that does not depend on coal production or they are unemployed.

  8. Boutime says:

    Many thanks to Pres. Obama, Lisa Jackson (EPA), our supportive US Senators / US Representatives and the many thousands of other folks that have worked long and hard to protect our environment. The newer stricter guidelines are definitely a major move in the right direction to protect our precious streams and mountains, so that maybe our future generations will be able to enjoy some of the pristine-unspoiled areas that I have visited and enjoyed over the years. This stricter set of guidelines and hopefully enforcement will not mean an end to surface mining– it just means different mining methods, smaller-more restrictive mining areas, more employees and a smaller profit for Ole King Coal. Remember– West Virginians — We are “The Mountain State” not “The Mountaintop Removal State”.

  9. Scott14 says:

    Vern, pretty sure I would get a warm reception in Fort McMurrary, Alberta (where the alabascia oil sands are). I have a old friend who made the move a few years ago and loves it. Except for the cold in Jan and Feb. He says the weather isnt bad. So ya im pretty sure they would want a few WV surface miners. Just think, No EPA or CRMW.

  10. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    OK, thanks folks. I appreciate all the comments. We’re going to shut down the discussion board for a few days though over the holiday weekend. Have a good one, Ken.