Coal Tattoo

New EPA standards: Is this only about coal?

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Even when he’s out in Indianapolis following my West Virginia Mountaineers in the Final Four, my buddy Hoppy Kercheval is chiming in on the latest mountaintop removal news.

Hoppy was tweeting away this morning with comments from Gov. Joe Manchin about yesterday’s big EPA announcement of new water quality guidelines.  Here’s the one that caught my eye:

Manchin on EPA decision: “Don’t treat me (WV) different.”

West Virginia Metro News has audio of the governor’s remarks, including this:

The last time I looked, I thought we were part of this great union called the United States of America … How can six states be held to another standard that 44 states are not?

So, is EPA treating coal or Appalachian coal differently? Well, yes and no.

Is EPA putting resources into examining the environmental problems associated with coal mining — especially mountaintop removal — in West Virginia? Absolutely. But perhaps that’s because there is so much scientific evidence about the magnitude of those problems, as well as plenty of evidence that we in Appalachia aren’t doing a very good job of addressing those problems on our own.

But one thing that the governor didn’t mention is that EPA’s new guidelines for conductivity are intended to apply not just to coal mining. Read the agency’s guidance again:

Permits for discharges associated with activities other than surface coal mining should also be evaluated to determine whether they are likely to result in in-stream conductivity levels above 500 …

… EPA should coordinate with the permitting authority to consider relevant information when conducting a reasonable potential analysis for other activities on a case by case basis.

But if the focus is on coal mining in West Virginia, why might that be?

We believe that circumstances unique to surface coal mining, however, are principally responsible for the increase in conductivity levels observed in surface waters downstream of mining practices.  Surface coal mining involves disturbing large volumes of rock and dirt, land clearing, and spoil disposal activities at a scale not typically associated with activities such as development practices or forestry.

We do not have studies of other non-mining activities demonstrating a likelihood that they will have a reasonable potential to cause or contribute to an exceedance of water quality standards.

Don’t believe that surface coal mining is such a big deal? Well, you need to read EPA’s new report, The Effects of Mountaintop Mines and Valley Fills on Aquatic Ecosystems of the Central Appalachian Coalfields, which further documents the clear science about the damage being done.

Among other things, the report includes this interesting figure:

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What is that? It’s from a study called “Spatial distribution of human geomorphic activity in the United States: Comparisons with Rivers,” published in 1999 by Roger Hooke, a University of Minnesota geologist.  The figure itself shows, by variations in peak height, the rates at which earth is moved in gigatonnes per year in a grid cell measuring 1 degree of latitude and longitude. The top map shows earth moved by humans. and the bottom earth moved by rivers.

Take a look at the earth movement there in Appalachia … as EPA said, this study “identified [mountaintop removal] in eastern coalfields as the greatest contributor to earth-moving activity in the United States.”

Complaining that West Virginia and its coal industry are being picked on seems to only divert attention away from the much more vital tasks of studying the EPA guidance and finding ways to live with it and, of course, preparing for the inevitable decline in Central Appalachian coal production because of market forces and trying to make carbon capture and storage work to blunt some of that decline.