Coal Tattoo


It’s nice that some things never change in West Virginia … like the lengths my friend Congressman Nick Rahall is willing to go to show his loyalty to the coal industry.

Rahall’s office today is promoting this letter that Rahall — along with Rep. Alan Mollahan, D-W.Va., and Rick Boucher, D-Va. — sent to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to complain about EPA’s latest effort to try to reduce the pollution from mountaintop removal coal mining.

The letter focuses on EPA’s recent guidance for how states should handle coal-mining pollution that dangerously increases the electrical conductivity of Appalachian streams.

In a press release, Rahall’s office said:

The legislators argued that much more work must be done to understand the broad effects of the policies contained in the Guidance on coal mining and other economic activities throughout Appalachia. In particular, the Guidance contains newly proposed limitations on the level of conductivity (electrical charge) in streams impacted by surface mining operations, a matter that has become a central and controversial issue in surface mining permit applications in the Appalachian states over recent months.

What’s missing from that?

Well, how about any suggestion from Rep. Rahall that perhaps the Environmental Protection Agency should be looking at what the impacts of increased conductivity is on Appalachian headwaters streams and water quality downstream from mining operations?

I’ve blogged before about all of the things that Rep. Rahall could be — but is not — doing that would try to find a balance between coal mining and environmental protection. This is yet another example of what has become a more and more one-sided view from the congressman who has represented Southern West Virginia’s coalfields for more than 30 years.

There are a couple of claims in Rahall’s letter that are especially interesting:

First, the letter says:

Essentially, EPA is seeking to bootstrap conductivity as a section 402 effluent limitation standard through the section 404 process.

Wrong.  While EPA’s guidance (right it here) does note that conductivity must be taken into account during the Clean Water Act 404  “dredge-and-fill” permit process, the agency specifies a clear focus and preference for dealing with it through CWA Section 402 water pollution permits.

Second, the Rahall letter says:

And to do so only in Appalachia, and only with respect to surface coal mining operations.  Not only is there no precedent for such an action, but it is also patently a wrong approach to implementing the Clean Water Act.  This is a national law and should be applied evenly and equally throughout the country as has been done in the past, and there is simply no justification for departing from that practice


Never before this Administration has the Appalachian coal mining industry been required to address questions of conductivity and much remains to be learned before we can possibly understand how conductivity limits will impact coal mining B both surface and underground B as well as any number of essential economic activities, such as road construction that is also critical to allowing the Appalachian region to achieve economic equity. To wit, we must question why a hardrock mining operation in California, or a shopping mall construction project in New Jersey, which may impact an intermittent or ephemeral stream, should not be held to the same standard.

We’ve been over this before, too …  See the previous post, New EPA standards: Is this only about coal?

For example:

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, to quote from the EPA guidance:

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.


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.

In his new commentary yesterday, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., urged West Virginians not to allow coal to dominate our state’s politics to the detriment of local communities:

… The coal industry has an immensely powerful lobby in Washington and in Charleston. For nearly a hundred years they have come to our presidents, our members of Congress, our legislators, our mayors, and our county commissioners to demand their priorities. It is only right that the people of West Virginia speak up and make the coal industry understand what is expected of it in return.