Today the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued final guidance to assist its staff in meeting longstanding requirements of the Clean Water Act with regard to mountaintop removal coal mines in Appalachia. All mountaintop removal mines must be permitted under the Clean Water Act and must comply with the law, but recent research by EPA and scientists have found these projects create lasting, irreparable harm to streams and water quality.
The final guidance comes after a more than year-long process during which the EPA examined the science, completed new major scientific reports, received peer review, and considered 60,000 public comments. In addition to improving the agency’s oversight and compliance with existing requirements of the law, the guidance reaffirms the essential role of science in evaluating proposed mountaintop removal mining permits. The final guidance is based on the latest peer-reviewed science on stream pollution and protection, including two comprehensive new scientific reports released by EPA this year that reveal information on how mountaintop removal mining harms the integrity of vital waters and natural resources. EPA’s guidance is also based on tens of thousands of public comments that EPA considered and received during its notice-and-comment process in 2010.
Represented by Earthjustice and the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, seven conservation and social justice groups— the Sierra Club, Coal River Mountain Watch, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, and Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment—have intervened in a coal mining industry lawsuit to support EPA’s use of this guidance and its effort to follow the Clean Water Act, consider the latest science, and protect America’s waters from destruction.
“We’re glad to see Administrator Lisa Jackson follow through on her commitment to finalize this important staff guidance, which is a considerable step toward giving Appalachian communities their rightful protections under existing law and following sound science,” said Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel of Earthjustice.
“But clearly, as long as mountains are being blown up and leveled in Appalachia, streams are being buried with mining waste, and waters for communities are being contaminated, the Obama administration has more work to do in making sure that the government is following the Clean Water Act,” said Mulhern. “This is a strong first step, though, and we hope to see this followed up with serious implementation and a hard look at how much longer our federal government will allow mountains to be destroyed and Appalachian communities to suffer. This guidance is only as protective as its implementation and the test will be whether we finally see compliance with the Clean Water Act which prohibits significant degradation of our nation’s waters.”
The EPA first released interim guidance in April 2010 for public comment after scientific breakthroughs offered new information on the lasting, irreparable harm from mountaintop removal mining. The EPA also found that there had been serious non-compliance in the permitting process with important existing legal requirements. In 2010, the EPA requested public comment while also implementing the interim guidance in Appalachia. The EPA stated that it would issue final guidance by 2011.
"In a time when some decision makers focus on scoring political points through empty rhetoric we congratulate Administrator Jackson and the EPA for using existing law and scientific findings to improve protection of Appalachia's communities and environment," said Mary Anne Hitt, director of Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. "We need EPA to finally ensure compliance with the Clean Water Act and bring an end to the nation's most destructive coal mining practices."
"Of course we hoped for more, but given the current political climate in Washington, we have nothing but praise and gratitude for EPA finalizing this guidance and reaffirming the scientific support for their actions" added Cindy Rank of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. "Now more than ever the waters of Appalachia and we who depend on them need EPA to stand strong on our behalf."
Said Rick Handshoe, member of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, whose Kentucky community is impacted by several coal mining operations and valley fills: “Every week I test the conductivity of the streams in my community, and the creek below a hollow fill and sediment pond never runs below 1500 micro-Siemens. Everything in the stream is dead because Kentucky officials are not doing their jobs. We need action today if we are to have any hope that our streams will one day recover."
Said Dianne Bady, co-director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, based in West Virginia: “This science-based guidance is absolutely necessary to safeguard clean water that still exists near current and proposed mountaintop removal mining operations. A healthy economy and healthy communities depend upon safe water. No community should ever again face the contamination of our precious water for short-term corporate gain.”
Said Vernon Haltom, executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch in West Virginia: “In the absence of any meaningful regulation by state agencies, our communities must depend on the EPA to protect our lives, homes, and water. Now, the coal industry and their political allies are working to take away the EPA's ability to use law and science to protect us.”
"The Appalachian people have waited long enough for protection of their waters from polluting companies,” said Debbie Jarrell, assistant director of Coal River Mountain Watch. “This decision has come none too soon. Study after study is beginning to come out over the detrimental effects mountaintop removal has on our communities and those that live in them. For us it's not a matter of jobs or money, our very lives are depending on decisions that the EPA make."
“With issuance of this guidance, EPA is acknowledging the significant cumulative impacts that mountaintop removal mining has imposed upon Appalachian communities and landscapes,” said Cathie Bird, of Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, based in Tennessee. “The conductivity science shows we need full protection for our waters in Tennessee, as well as throughout Appalachia. We are confident that the science shows the need to fully protect our waters in Tennessee, specifically from selenium and other mountaintop removal mining wastes.”
Said Jane Branham of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards in Virginia: “For far too long, and against great public outcry, Virginia's state regulatory agencies have worked hand in hand with the coal industry to approve more permits to destroy more mountains, streams and communities. We are appreciative of the EPA's efforts to end this devastating coal extraction practice and ask for their continued support. Further, it is absolutely essential that we have full protection for water quality here in Virginia. The destruction must end.”