Mountaintop Removal’s Final Four

posted by Adrian Ran

Tomorrow night, the West Virginia Mountaineers are going up against one of the nation’s toughest teams to pursue the ultimate victory – winning the NCAA championship. To get their win, the Mountaineers will have to beat Duke and then face a final match-up with the winner of the Saturday Michigan State/Butler game.

While the Mountaineers reach for their win, West Virginia’s Mountains scored theirs yesterday. In what could be seen as the semi-final games for the Appalachian Mountains, the long awaited new EPA guidelines on mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR) were announced yesterday, scoring 1 for the mountains and 0 for King Coal.

With these new guidelines, the EPA took a giant leap toward eliminating new mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining projects in the Appalachian states. Essentially, they issued strict new guidelines for coal producers and regulators designed to protect headwater streams by curbing the practice of dumping waste in neighboring valleys – a practice that has been poisoning community drinking water for decades. This may very well be the most significant administrative action ever taken to address mountaintop removal coal mining.

The practical impact of the new standards will be to minimize the dumping of mining waste in valleys adjacent to MTR projects. Because the coal industry maintains that most mountaintop projects wouldn’t be worth the additional cost of trucking the debris to more distant dumping sites, the guidelines – if properly enforced – could end most new mountaintop projects before they ever begin. The new standards will apply to all mountaintop operations proposed in the future, as well as the nearly 80 pending mountaintop permits the EPA is currently reviewing.

This is an incredible step that Appalachians, who have fought a decades-long battle against the devastation of mountaintop removal, are celebrating whole-heartedly. As RAN’s Amanda Starbuck said in a press statement yesterday: “After months of steps, the EPA has finally taken a leap to protect America’s mountains and drinking water. This is a clear response to resounding public opposition to the devastating mining practice. The EPA is finally flexing its full authority under the clean water act to curtail valley fills and protect the health of our waterways from irreversible damage.”

Like the Mountaineers, though, who still have a final game to go, the fight for Appalachia’s mountains is still short of a clear victory.. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said it well during her press conference yesterday announcing the new guidelines. “Let me be clear,” said Administrator Jackson. “This is not about ending coal mining. This is about ending coal mining pollution.”

I feel we have to be clear as well, and when I say ‘we’ I mean science. Ending mountaintop removal pollution can only happen by ending mountaintop removal. As a recent peer-reviewed report in the journal Science concluded, the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal mining are so severe that they cannot be successfully addressed with mitigation practices. “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 final game for mountaintop removal will be in pushing for President Obama’s administration to use their full authority to ban mountaintop removal once and for all.

I mean, really if President Obama wanted to stop most strip-mining in Appalachia, there might be more straight-forward ways to getting much closer to that goal explained Ken Ward of Coal Tattoo today. “The EPA could start a rulemaking to put the “fill rule” back the way it was, or the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement over at the Interior Department could announce it is going to apply the “buffer zone rule” to the footprint of valley fills. Or heck, Obama could seek legislation to just ban the practice… after all, both Sen. Robert C. Byrd and Rep. Nick J. have indicated they think there’s support in Congress for doing just that.”

It is clear that we are in the final showdown on mountaintop removal, and that we are winning. A very good thing considering that unlike basketball, which starts again every season, we can’t recruit new mountains.

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