Wednesday, March 25, 2009

An End to Mountaintop Removal?

While the case of the Exxon Valdez, and oil production generally, is significant for its harm to the environment, I do not want to give the impression that petroleum is the only harmful energy source. Coal is just as harmful, and in some cases may be even worse than petroleum (or bitumen, for that matter). On the latter issue, we have some hopeful signs. This week, the EPA sent letters to the Army Corps of Engineers, which issues permits for surface mining, on pending permits for mountaintop removal mining operations in the Appalachians. The letters express the new administration's reservations regarding this method and suggest that environmental reviews will be more rigorous than in the past.

EPA’s letters, sent to the Corps office in Huntington, W.Va., stated that the coal mines would likely cause water quality problems in streams below the mines, would cause significant degradation to streams buried by mining activities, and that proposed steps to offset these impacts are inadequate. EPA has recommended specific actions be taken to further avoid and reduce these harmful impacts and to improve mitigation....

The Corps is responsible for issuing Clean Water Act permits for proposed surface coal mining operations that impact streams, wetlands, and other waters. EPA is required by the act to review proposed permits and provides comments to the Corps where necessary to ensure that proposed permits fully protect water quality.

Because of active litigation in the 4th Circuit challenging the issuance of Corps permits for coal mining, the Corps has been issuing far fewer permits in West Virginia since the litigation began in 2007. As a result, there is a significant backlog of permits under review by the Corps. EPA expects to be actively involved in the review of these permits following issuance of the 4th Circuit decision last month.
Mining coal via the mountaintop removal method is tremendously destructive to water quality and bird habitat. When rock is blasted from the tops of mountains to reach coal deposits, it is dumped into valleys – basically streambeds. Any chemicals present in the rock can then leach into streams and any river systems to which they connect. There is then potential for these chemicals to travel far downstream and affect drinking water and aquatic life. Coal deposits are associated with multiple toxins, including mercury. So far over 1200 streams have been affected by this mining process, according to the EPA.

Declines of some bird species, especially this blog's mascot, have been linked to the loss of Appalachian habitat. A large portion of the blame for habitat loss can be assigned to coal mining, which clears or fragments any forests covering the mountains before blasting rock. In the course of removing 470 mountains, the mining operations have deforested over 1.5 million acres. Even when the mines are "reclaimed," the resulting habitat is not a suitable replacement for the interior forest species displaced by the mine.

Because of these impacts, the EPA's announcement is welcome indeed. Regulatory agencies have long downplayed or ignored the effects of valley fills and habitat destruction when issuing permits for mining operations. Whether this announcement will result in substantive change, however, remains to be seen.