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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Hold on Coal

Air Date: Week of

Mountain-top removal coal in Appalachia. (Courtesy of the Sierra Club)

The EPA has made a list and is checking it twice. The agency put a hold on 79 mountain-top removal mining sites in Appalachia to ensure they comply with Clean Water Act rules on burying streams under tons of rubble. Host Jeff Young asks Charleston Gazette coal reporter Ken Ward Jr. whether the sharper scrutiny signals the Obama administration’s commitment to shrinking the environmental impacts of coal mining.


YOUNG: In Appalachia’s coal country, the dispute over mountaintop removal mining has heated up, with activists blocking the gates to some mines and the Obama administration looking into some permits. The Environmental Protection Agency is focusing on 79 mountaintop removal sites, especially the valley fills. That’s where the waste rock and dirt is dumped, sometimes burying miles of nearby streams.

The EPA announcement sparked emotional response from both sides of this debate even though, so far, the agency hasn’t stopped any mining. Ken Ward, Jr.’s been watching all this closely. He’s a reporter for the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. Ken Ward says EPA’s ultimate decision on these mines will largely rest on what becomes of the water.

WARD: EPA scientists believe that mountaintop removal is not only burying streams – hundreds of miles of streams – but they believe that this type of mining is damaging the water quality downstream from those valley fills.

Scientists are seeing impacts on water quality ranging from increased levels of toxic selenium to metals and other sorts of pollutants that are increased when there is mining upstream. One EPA study that’s been much quoted found that mayflies had disappeared all together downstream from valley fills. And EPA scientists see that as an indication that if, uh, those insects are gone that the stream overall in the ecological system there is not very healthy.

YOUNG: Now, these water issues that EPA is raising here – are these the kind of problems that could be easily resolved by tinkering with the permits, limiting the size of the valley fills, that sort of thing, or are they pointing to problems here that would be much more difficult to address?

WARD: Well, you really hit on the question. What remains to be seen is exactly what is EPA going to find in the end acceptable and not acceptable? They haven’t said they will veto any of these permits, but they just said they want to take a closer look at them.

And, you know, what the mining industry would like to know and I think environmentalists would like to know is exactly how big of a valley fill? How much stream does EPA say can be filled? How much downstream impacts is acceptable? And the EPA had really not said where that bar is going to be yet.

YOUNG: What about the legality of the fills themselves? The Bush administration made some changes to the regulations for clean water to basically allow that type of fill to be dumped into streams. Any indication here that the Obama administration is ready to revisit that?

WARD: Well, the Obama administration has said that what it has in mind is to take unprecedented steps to reduce the impacts of mountaintop removal. What the Obama administration has not really commented on is whether it will propose to rewrite the Clean Water Act – what’s called the “fill rule” – which the way it had been previously written before the Bush administration changed it. The fill rule, at least one federal judge said, outlawed valley fills all together. So it’s really – this is just a step in a process of trying to get at where is the Obama administration headed on this issue? We don’t really know for sure.

YOUNG: What was the reaction from West Virginia lawmakers when EPA said it was going to take a closer look here?

WARD: Well, it’s kinda interesting because previously there’d been several rounds of this with the Obama administration, where they’ve announced some actions on some mining permits.

And you typically then get this race by the politicians here to – who can ratchet up the rhetoric the highest against EPA and in favor of state’s rights and in favor of the mining industry. But this time, when EPA announced it wanted to take a look at these 79 permits it was a bit more muted of a response, not with the outrage and the rhetoric that we’d heard before.

YOUNG: What do you make of that somewhat muted response, and no response from Robert Byrd?

WARD: Well, Senator Byrd has been a very strong supporter of the coal industry his whole career. He’s been a very vocal supporter of mountaintop removal, but he was kind of hinting around that, you know, that maybe he was rethinking things, and, you know, you heard rumbles that there might be some new proposal or policy coming from Senator Byrd. It would certainly be interesting is Senator Byrd decided to engage in this and try to seek some middle ground or some solution to the problem.

Mountain-top removal coal in Appalachia. (Courtesy of the Sierra Club)

YOUNG: So, what should we be watching for as this process unfolds? Is there a sort of key or telling decision coming from EPA to show us just where they’re going here?

WARD: Well, yes. We want to watch these 79 permits and see which of them, if any, EPA relents and allows the Corps to issue, and look and see, well, what are the conditions in those permits? What sort of valley fills are proposed? What sort of changes does EPA press the companies to make in their mining plans? There’s a host of those sorts of things that environmental groups would like to see this administration do, and are pressing this administration to do. We need to watch and see what happens with this.

YOUNG: Ken Ward, Jr. of the Charleston Gazette. You can also read his blog, it’s called “Coal Tattoo”. Thanks, Ken.

WARD: Thank you, Jeff.

[MUSIC: Tom Verlaine “Meteor Beach” from ‘Around’ (Thrill Records - 2006)]

CURWOOD: Coming up, the City of Steel rebuilds green – a visit to Pittsburg. Keep listening to Living on Earth.



Check out Ken Ward Jr.’s blog on mining in coal country

Learn more about the EPA announcement on mining permits.


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