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Much-Lauded Strict Mountaintop Mining Guidelines Not So Strict

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EPA’s First Decision Under New Mountaintop Mining Guidelines is to Approve Coal Permit; Permit Would Create Three New Valley Fills
Tuesday, June 29, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO– Just last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave the Army Corps of Engineers a green light for the Pine Creek mine permit, a mountaintop removal (MTR) mining site in Logan County, W.Va. This is the first permit decision the EPA has issued under the new mountaintop mining guidelines, which came out last April and were anticipated to provide tougher oversight of mountaintop removal coal mining.
 
The new MTR guidelines were understood to provide greater protection for headwater streams by curbing the practice of dumping waste in neighboring valleys to create what is known as valley fills. The Pine Creek permit is the first test of these guidelines, and green lights three new valley fills (each over 40 acres large). It was anticipated that these guidelines, by requiring mining operators to control levels of toxins in nearby streams, would significantly reduce the dumping of mining waste in valleys, which the EPA said was scientifically proven to contaminate drinking water and wreck ecosystems.
 
“This is a devastating first decision under guidelines that had offered so much hope for Appalachian residents who thought the EPA was standing up for their health and water quality in the face of a horrific mining practice,” said Amanda Starbuck of the Rainforest Action Network. “The grand words being spoken by Administrator Jackson in Washington are simply not being reflected in the EPA’s actions on-the-ground. This continues the inconsistent and contradictory decisions that have plagued the EPA’s process on mountaintop removal coal mining all along.”
 
In announcing the new guidelines in April, Administrator Jackson told reporters: “We expect this guidance to change behaviors, to change actions, because if we keep doing what we have been doing, we’re going to see continued degradation of water quality… Minimizing the number of valley fills is a very, very key factor. You’re talking about no or very few valley fills that are going to be able to meet standards like this.”
 
The Pine Creek Surface Mine permit will allow Coal-Mac, a subsidiary of coal giant Arch Coal, to mine through more than 2 miles of streams that are already suffering dangerous levels of pollution from surface mining (see editors note for more details). Extensive mountaintop removal mining and the subsequent environmental and water quality damage have already ravaged Logan County W.Va., which is the location of the infamous Spruce mine.  
 
In response to the possibility of more blasting in Logan County, West Virginia resident Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environment Coalition said: “In approving the Pine Creek permit, the EPA has failed our community. Any more mountaintop removal mining in Logan County is going to further degrade the watershed, increase pollution-related health impacts and increase the likelihood of more flooding.”
 
“Moving forward, it is clear that the EPA cannot end mountaintop removal coal mining pollution without abolishing mountaintop removal all together,” continued Starbuck.

Since 1992, nearly 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams have been filled at a rate of 120 miles per year by surface mining practices.  A recent EPA study found elevated levels of highly toxic selenium in streams downstream from valley fills. These impairments are linked to contamination of surface water supplies and resulting health concerns, as well as widespread impacts to stream life in downstream rivers and streams.  Further, the estimated scale of deforestation from existing Appalachian surface mining operations is equivalent in size to the state of Delaware.  
 
A paper released in January 2009 by a dozen leading scientists in the journal Science, concluded that mountaintop coal mining is so destructive that the government should stop giving out new permits all together. "The science is so overwhelming that the only conclusion that one can reach is that mountaintop mining needs to be stopped," said Margaret Palmer, a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences and the study's lead author.
 
The Pine Creek permit is currently awaiting approval from the Army Corps of Engineers.
 
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Notes to Editor
For more information on the EPA’s decision about the Pine Creek mine permit:
http://www.epa.gov/owow/wetlands/guidance/pdf/CoalMac_ECP_letter_06-21-1...
http://www.lrh.usace.army.mil/_kd/Items/actions.cfm?action=Show&item_id=...
 
For more information on the Pine Creek permit:
http://ran.org/content/stop-blasting-pine-creek-west-virginia
 
For background on EPA guidelines and conductivity levels:
The new EPA guidelines were designed to gauge the health of nearby streams based on their levels of conductivity, which is an indicator of water’s purity. The runoff from Appalachian mines contains toxins like magnesium, sulfate, bicarbonate, and potassium — all ions that raise conductivity levels. The higher the conductivity, the tougher it is for aquatic life to survive.
 
EPA is warning that water pollution from these mining operations dangerously increases the electrical conductivity of streams. Under the guidelines, the EPA believes any mining proposals with predicted conductivity levels of 300 or below is generally okay. Anything above 500 is considered by EPA “to be associated with impacts that may rise to the level of exceedances of narrative state water quality standards.”
 
There is a plan for monitoring water quality that involves 2 thresholds. Should bi-monthly testing show conductivity levels of about 300 then the "adaptive management plan" kicks in. The second threshold is when levels exceed 500 at which point "chemical improvements to the watershed" will be made. Should water quality be in exceedence of 500 a subsequent valley fill would not be allowed to be constructed. The EPA acknowledges that conductivity levels at the left fork of Pine Creek are already approaching 500 S/cm.

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Rainforest Action Network runs hard-hitting campaigns to break North America’s fossil fuels addiction, protect endangered forests and Indigenous rights, and stop destructive investments around the world through education, grassroots organizing, and non-violent direct action. For more information, please visit: www.ran.org

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