EPA lays down the law: announces strict enforcement of Clean Water Act

posted by Rainforest Action Network

 More on today’s announcement from the EPA…

As we have already blogged, today the EPA announced formal guidance on the issuance of new mountaintop removal coal mining permits. I will unpack that announcement a bit for understory readers:

Mountaintop removal is regulated by the EPA under the Clean Water Act. Today Lisa Jackson announced several new considerations that the EPA will take into account when determining the fate of new mountaintop removal permits.

Here are a few aspects that are of note:

  • The EPA created a “yardstick” by which they will assess conductivity of water.

Conductivity is a useful measure of stream water quality. Toxic pollutants like selenium degrade water quality. On todays call, Administrator Jackson set benchmarks that EPA will use to evaluate new mountaintop removal permits impact on local watersheds:

To protect water quality, EPA has identified a range of conductivity (a measure of the level of salt in the water) of 300 to 500 microSiemens per centimeter. The maximum benchmark conductivity of 500 microSiemens per centimeter is a measure of salinity that is roughly five times above normal levels. The conductivity levels identified in the clarifying guidance are intended to protect 95 percent of aquatic life and fresh water streams in central Appalachia.

For those of us that aren’t water quality analysts, its means that the EPA now has a threshold that they will consider impacts on water. Ok, that may seem pretty normal, but in fact this is  the first time a numerical standard has been placed on conductivity. (yes…that’s a big deal….)

  • The EPA will also be cracking down significantly on valley fills. On today’s call Administrator Jackson said that under these guidelines, few to no new valley fills will be allowed. In order to better deal with the approval of valley fills EPA says: 

Mining companies must first demonstrate that there is no practicable alternative to the proposed discharge to the waters of the United States which would have less adverse impact on the aquatic ecosystem”.           

Aka, a mining company must go to great lengths to determine that a valley fill is necessary. If they are able to demonstrate this, the EPA has said they will practice sequencing, in which case only one valley fill will be permitted at a time. Also of note, the EPA studies releaseg today show that “nine out of every 10 streams downstream of surface mining operations exhibit significant impacts to aquatic life.”

In addition to today’s announcement, EPA has said that Army Corps are also working on standards to better regulate mountaintop removal under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). Considering the Army Corps has historically been a “rubber stamp” on these permits, we await this new regulation with baited breath…

Today was a giant step in the right direction. For the first time in many years the EPA is indicating that they will use their authority under the Clean Water Act to regulate mountaintop removal coal mining.

It is important to note however, that while the steps taken today by the EPA should be applauded; mitigation is not a solution for those who live in Appalachia. The impacts of mountaintop removal cannot be minimized, the must be abolished.  

If you have not already, please take a minute and Pledge to End Mountaintop Removal in 2010.