Late Wednesday several Appalachian organizations filed a motion to intervene in defense of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to support the EPA’s new Clean Water Act guidance and the agencies’ joint permit review process. Through this process, the agencies aim to improve compliance with legal protections for mining communities in Appalachia, where waterways have already suffered extensive damage from mountaintop removal coal mining.
Represented by Earthjustice, the Sierra Club and six Appalachian conservation and social justice groups—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—filed a motion to intervene on the basis that the mining industry should not be able to prevent government agencies from doing their jobs: to follow the Clean Water Act, consider the key scientific information discussed in the guidance, and protect America’s waters from destruction.
“For 40 years the Clean Water Act has protected Americans from unacceptable pollution like the mining waste that destroys our essential mountain streams. But here in Appalachia, we’re still waiting for real protection,” said Debbie Jarrell, assistant director of Coal River Mountain Watch.
Mountaintop removal is a destructive form of coal mining, using explosives to blow up mountains and expose the coal under them. Coal companies then dump toxic rubble and waste over the side of the mountain into valleys below, polluting and burying streams. More than 2,000 miles of streams have been buried by mountaintop removal coal mining to date.
“For too long, this destructive mining practice has escaped important Clean Water Act scrutiny,” said Cathie Bird, chair of Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment’s E3 Committee, “and in the meantime mountaintop removal mining has destroyed an enormous part of our mountain range and buried our waters with their mining waste and pollution.”
In April 2010, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson issued guidance to field staff after finding significant problems in the past permitting process. The guidance strengthens the role of science in issuing mountaintop removal mining permits and ensures that all Clean Water Act requirements are met during the mine permitting process. The guidance also details a range of benchmarks for pollution and other scientific information relevant to proposed permits, which would help staff measure and prevent significant and irreversible damage to Appalachian watersheds at risk from mining activity, as required by law. The conservation groups, in consultation with attorneys and staff at the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, have been closely monitoring the interagency review process on mountaintop removal mining.
The National Mining Association—representing large coal mining companies—filed suit against the EPA and the Army Corps on July 20. It is challenging the EPA guidance and the agencies’ joint permit review process. Through this suit, filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., the mining industry is trying to block the EPA from exercising its basic Clean Water Act authority to ensure the consideration of important scientific information during the permitting process.
“The National Mining Association’s challenge is an attempt to avoid the law and derail strong science—both of which will protect the people and communities of Appalachia,” said Earthjustice attorney Jennifer Chavez. “It’s time for this industry to cooperate in this long-overdue process by the EPA and the Army Corps in which they are working toward satisfying the requirements of the Clean Water Act and sound science.”
“EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson took bold action on mountaintop removal coal mining, and the National Mining Association is scared that its days of unchecked polluting are coming to an end,” said Ed Hopkins, senior Washington, D.C. director for the Sierra Club. “EPA has the authority and responsibility to protect waterways and communities from mining waste, and we support their efforts to use the best available science to evaluate coal mining permits.”
“The coal industry’s lawsuit would weaken environmental safeguards that protect the people and water supplies of Appalachia so that nothing — not the law, not sound science, not even the communities of Appalachia—could stand in the way of new profits for a few companies at the expense of the people of Appalachia,” said Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.
“It would be a tragedy to let industry sidetrack the government from trying to understand the full extent of the problem of mountaintop removal mining that we have been living with for so long,” said Cindy Rank, chair of the Mining Committee of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.
“Our communities have suffered and continue to suffer from the results of mountaintop removal coal mining. The destruction of our mountains and poisoning of our water must end,” said Jane Branham, vice president of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards.
“It’s past time for the EPA to enforce the Clean Water Act,” said Rick Handshoe, a member of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, whose eastern Kentucky community is surrounded by nine valley fills with three more pending. “In my neighborhood it’s too late; the water has been destroyed – but we can’t let this happen anywhere else.”
Along with the guidance, the National Mining Association is challenging the agencies’ joint permit review process. In June 2009, the EPA, Department of Interior, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued policy documents to coordinate between the three agencies, which are all involved in the permitting and review of mountaintop removal mine projects. The agencies committed to ensure coordinated and stringent environmental reviews of mine permit applications under applicable law, including the Clean Water Act, to inform the public through outreach events in the Appalachian region to help develop federal policy, and to help diversify and strengthen the Appalachian regional economy and promote the health and welfare of Appalachian communities.