EPA Issues Mountaintop Mining Guidance to Reduce Environmental Impact

April 2, 2010
EPA has announced a set of actions to clarify and strengthen environmental permitting requirements for Appalachian mountaintop removal and other surface coal mining projects to prevent significant and irreversible damage to watersheds.

Mountaintop removal is a form of surface coal mining in which explosives are used to access coal seams, generating large volumes of waste that bury adjacent streams. The resulting waste that then fills valleys and streams can significantly compromise water quality, often causing permanent damage to ecosystems and rendering streams unfit for swimming, fishing and drinking. It is estimated that almost 2,000 miles of Appalachian headwater streams have been buried by mountaintop coal mining.

A growing body of scientific literature, including previous and new studies performed by EPA, shows significant damage to local streams that are polluted with the mining runoff from mountaintop removal. 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.

While EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson stressed in an April 1 press conference that “either no or very few valley fills” likely can be accommodated in mountaintop mining operations under these constraints, she pointed out that the guidance is not designed to end mountaintop mining or the practice of valley fills.

“Let me be clear: This is not about ending coal mining. This is about ending coal mining pollution,” Jackson said. “Coal communities should not have to sacrifice their environment or their health or their economic future to mountaintop mining. They deserve the full protection of our clean water laws.”

According to Jackson, this is the first time EPA has urged the use of a numeric standard for conductivity “as a way to objectively and comprehensively gauge stream health.” The maximum benchmark conductivity of 500 microSiemens per centimeter is a measure of salinity that is roughly 5 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.

NMA: Guidance Will Impact Jobs, Economic Activity

Following EPA’s announcement, National Mining Association (NMA) Senior Vice President for Regulatory Affairs Bruce Watzman released a statement to stress that coal mining communities “are deeply concerned” by the implications for Appalachia’s employment and economic activity.

“This is a sweeping regulatory action that affects not only all coal mining in the region, but also other activities with the potential to impact Appalachian stream quality, according to EPA Administrator Jackson,” he said. “The policy was announced without the required transparency and opportunity for public comment that is afforded to policies of this magnitude. Nor does the guidance strike a much-needed balance between the economic needs and environmental expectations of the affected workers and local communities.”

Watzman added that permits issued under the Clean Water Act affect not only 80,000 coal mining jobs in Appalachia, but also the coal that powers nearly 80 million homes and U.S. steel production.

“We urge EPA to give greater thought to the impact on jobs, affordable electricity and U.S. steel production caused by further permitting delays and roadblocks resulting from the agency’s ill-considered policy decisions over the last several days,” Watzman said.

The Guidance

EPA is communicating the comprehensive guidance to its regional offices with permitting responsibility in Appalachian states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. The guidance clarifies existing requirements of the Section 402 and 404 Clean Water Act permitting programs that apply to pollution from surface coal mining operations in streams and wetlands. The guidance details EPA’s responsibilities and how the agency uses its Clean Water Act (CWA) authorities to ensure that future mining will not cause significant environmental, water quality and human health impacts.

EPA will solicit public comments on the new guidance. The guidance will be effective immediately on an interim basis. EPA will decide whether to modify the guidance after consideration of public comments and the results of the SAB technical review of the EPA scientific reports.

EPA also is making publicly available two scientific reports prepared by its Office of Research and Development (ORD). One summarizes the aquatic impacts of mountaintop mining and valley fills. The second report establishes a scientific benchmark for unacceptable levels of conductivity that threaten stream life in surface waters. These reports are being published for public comment and submitted for peer review to the EPA Science Advisory Board.

For more information and related documents concerning EPA’s guidance, visit http://www.epa.gov/owow/wetlands/guidance/mining.html.

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