United States Cracks Down on Coal Mining Pollution

Bookmark and Share  
Mountaintop removal mineThe United States issued new water pollution rules for the controversial coal mining practice known as mountaintop removal, practiced mainly in the Appalachian region in the east. The clarifications may prevent mining companies from gaining further permits, regulators said.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warned last week that operations that substantially increase the electrical conductivity of nearby steams - a measure of salt content that indicates the amount of dissolved toxic solids that float downstream - would not receive permits.

"We expect these guidances to change behavior, to change action, because if we continue to do what we have been doing we will continue to see increasing degradation of water quality," said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in a conference call with reporters.

During mountaintop removal, miners place explosives along ridges to access coal seams hidden underground. Bulldozers push rubble into adjacent depressions, often filling valley streams with contaminants that were previously held in the soil - a result known as a "valley fill."

Valley fills have affected nearly 2,000 miles (3,220 kilometers) of Appalachian streams, or nine out of every 10 streams downstream from surface mining operations, since 1992, according to the EPA. The mining process has polluted drinking water with elevated levels of heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, and selenium. Meanwhile, valley fills can accelerate storm runoff and overrun the holding ponds that store toxic runoff waters, flooding downstream communities.

Jackson said that the new rules should minimize the number of valley fills. "You're looking at no or very little valley fills that will be able to meet these standards," she said.

New rules would limit conductivity to 500 microSiemens per centimeter (µmhos/cm), roughly five times above natural levels, the EPA noted. "Conductivity is a good indicator of damage to a stream, to its integrity, to its health," Jackson said. "We've seen levels as high as 4,000-5,000 [µmhos/cm] in projects that are ongoing."

The mining industry has defended mountaintop removal as necessary to provide employment in impoverished Appalachian communities, even though the practice generates fewer jobs than subsurface mining. The EPA, however, said that residents "should not have to choose between a clean, healthy environment in which to raise their families and the jobs they need to support them."

The EPA approved permits for 511 valley fills between 2000 and 2008. The Obama administration began more rigorous reviews of mountaintop mining permits last year, approving some while turning down others.

While the new standards may curtail coal mining in the Appalachian region, the administration is maintaining its overall support for coal mining. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved the sale of an expected 410 million tons of coal from a Wyoming mine last month, despite protests from environmental groups on grounds that burning coal releases climate-warning greenhouse gases.  BLM officials said that greenhouse gases are better controlled at coal-fired power plants, rather than at the mine site.

"Let me be clear," Jackson told reporters. "This is not about ending coal mining. This is about ending coal mining pollution."

Appalachian activists who want an end to mountaintop removal mining say that the U.S. Senate still needs to pass legislation that would effectively end the mining practice before they can claim victory.

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

For permission to republish this article, please contact Juli Diamond at jdiamond@worldwatch.org.