Coal Clampdown

After mountains are leveled to access coal, the resulting "valley fill" is often left to contaminate streams and block waterways.
© Appalachian Voices

It looks as though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is toughening its stance against the toxic practices associated with mountaintop removal mining. Last week, the agency recommended that none of the 79 valley fill permit applications associated with mountaintop removal mining be streamlined for approval.

As E wrote in the September/October 2009 cover story, “Is This the End for Coal?”, "Since they are so large in scale, valley fills can lead to irreversible changes in watersheds—streams with dramatically higher concentrations of sulfate and magnesium, ions of calcium as well as elevated trace elements of iron, aluminum, zinc and selenium, scientists say. The cumulative effects of these changes have been linked to biological damage to streams below valley fills. Burying headwaters is particularly troubling since they represent the spots "where rivers are born" and feed waters and aquatic life downstream." The EPA's latest decision signals a reversal in course—back in May, EPA officials had granted permission for 42 of 48 valley fill permits after individual reviews.

The EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of the Interior are dealing with a backlog of permit applications that have been held up by litigation. And while this decision to block the permits is not yet final, it gives hope to environmental groups who have been fighting mountaintop removal mining.

Willa Mays, executive director for Appalachian Voices, a regional environmental group, said, "By recommending these permits not be approved, the EPA and the Army Corps have demonstrated their intention to fulfill a promise to provide science-based oversight which will limit the devastating environmental impacts of mountaintop removal mining." She adds: "This is indeed good news especially paired with the fact that 156 members of the House of Representatives are now cosponsors of the Clean Water Protection Act."

SOURCE: Appalachian Voices