Mining: The EPA Vetoes a Mountaintop Removal Mine—and Industry Opponents Fire Back

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In a decision that could have a major impact on both the mining industry and the Obama Administration’s relationship with conservatives, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced today that it was vetoing the largest single mountaintop mining removal permit in West Virginia history. In using its authority under the Clean Water Act to block approval of the proposed 2,300-acre Spruce No. 1 Mine in Logan County, West Virginia, the EPA will earn praise from greens—including some from the Appalachians—who have long fought mountaintop mining as a destructive practice that ruins the environment and the health of those who live near the mines. But the agency will undoubtedly face a backlash from the mining industry and the West Virginia politicians—both Republican and Democrat—who defend it, at a time when the EPA is already on a collision course with business and conservatives over proposed greenhouse gas regulations.

From the EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Peter S. Silva:

The proposed Spruce No. 1 Mine would use destructive and unsustainable mining practices that jeopardize the health of Appalachian communities and clean water on which they depend. Coal and coal mining are part of our nation’s energy future and EPA has worked with companies to design mining operations that adequately protect our nation’s waters. We have a responsibility under the law to protect water quality and safeguard the people who rely on clean water.

To understand why the EPA made this decision—only the 12th time the agency has ever used its Clean Water Act authority in this fashion—it’s important to understand what happens in mountaintop removal mining (MTR). To get at seams of coal buried beneath the surface of hills, mining companies essentially cut off the top of mountains to get at the coal underneath. That leaves a lot of rock waste—known as “mining overburden”—to be filled into nearby valleys. Those “valley fills” are what particularly worry the EPA because of the way they can spread pollution to the surrounding mountain areas and waterways.  According to the EPA the Spruce Mine would:

  • Deposit 110 million cubic years of coal mine waste into streams
  • Fully bury more than six miles of high-quality streams in Logan County in millions of tons of mining waste resulting from the dynamiting of more than 2,200 acres of mountains and forests
  • Eliminate all fish, salamanders and other wildlife that live in those streams
  • Pollute waters downstream from those buried streams, leading to unhealthy levels of salinity and toxic levels of selenium, turning fresh water into salt water.
  • Cause downstream watershed degradation that will kill wildlife and increase susceptibility to toxic algal blooms.

You can read the EPA’s full decision here. The veto, which came after a major public hearing in West Virginia and a review of nearly 50,000 public comments, caps a decade-plus battle over the Spruce Mine, which was first proposed in the 1990s and which has been tied up in courts ever since. The Army Corps of Engineers actually approved the design for the mine in 2007, under the Bush Administration, but the Obama EPA has put up a much stronger fight against MTR.

That hasn’t been missed by the mining industry, which has clashed repeatedly with the EPA. Kim Link—a spokesman for Arch Coal, the company that owns the proposed mine—told the New York Times:

We remain shocked and dismayed at E.P.A.’s continued onslaught with respect to this validly issued permit. Absent court intervention, E.P.A.’s final determination to veto the Spruce permit blocks an additional $250 million investment and 250 well-paying American jobs. Furthermore, we believe this decision will have a chilling effect on future U.S. investment because every business possessing or requiring a permit under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act will fear similar overreaching by the E.P.A. It’s a risk many businesses cannot afford to take.

It didn’t take long for West Virginia politicians to fire back. New Democratic West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin—the guy who shot a bullet through the cap-and-trade bill in an ad for his campaign—harshly criticized the EPA:

It goes without saying, such an irresponsible regulatory step is not only a shocking display of overreach, it will have a chilling effect on investments and our economic recovery. I plan to do everything in my power to fight this decision.

The ramifications could go beyond the mining and coal industry. Last week a diverse coalition of industry groups—ranging from the National Realtors Association to the United Egg Producers—wrote to Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, urging the White House to stop the EPA from blocking the permit for the Spruce Mine:

The implications could be staggering, reaching all areas of the U.S. economy including but not limited to the agriculture, home building, mining, transportation and energy sectors.

The business groups noted that clean water permits like the one at issue at the Spruce Mine support $220 billion worth of economic activity each year. The implications were clear: if the EPA was deciding to crack down on water pollution, business (and its political allies) would fight back.

It’s a battle that is just beginning for the EPA and the White House, and it’s one that will drag on for at least the next two years. For now, though, environmentalists can savor a major victory, after a year when they were dealt defeat after defeat. As Joe Lovett—a lawyer and the executive director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, who has been fighting the mine for 12 years—said in statement:

It is a relief after all of these years that at least one agency has shown the will to follow the law and the science by stopping the destruction of Pigeonroost Hollow and Oldhouse Branch. Today, the EPA has helped to save these beautiful hollows for future generations.

But as Lovett and his green allies know, the fight isn’t over yet.