A coalition of environmental groups today called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to put public health and safety first, and to establish, for the first time ever, limits on air pollution from coal mines throughout the United States.
"It's time to finally hold coal mines accountable to our health, safety, and environment," said Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program Director for WildEarth Guardians. "With mines spewing methane, dust, toxic orange clouds, and other dangerous gases, we need a national response that puts clean air before coal."
In a petition to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Earthjustice, WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Environmental Integrity Project, and the Sierra Club called for the agency to exercise its authority under the Clean Air Act to both list coal mines as a source of harmful air pollution and ensure the best systems of emission reduction are used to keep this pollution in check. Such standards have been adopted for gravel mines, coal-fired power plants, coal processing plants, and dozens of other sources, but currently, no national limits on air pollution from coal mines exist.
"Coal mines have gotten a free pass for far too long," said Kassie Siegel with the Center for Biological Diversity. "It's essential to establish these common-sense rules to reduce air pollution from coal mines -- including closed mines no longer producing coal -- while we transition as rapidly as possible away from reliance on dirty, dangerous, coal-fired power."
The petition comes as attention increasingly focuses on methane emissions from coal mines. Methane is a major safety hazard, contributing to a number of mine catastrophes over the years, including the most recent Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in West Virginia. Methane is also a potent greenhouse gas. With more than 20 times the heat-trapping ability of carbon dioxide, the EPA has determined that methane endangers public health and welfare. It also contributes to ground-level ozone pollution, the key ingredient of smog. Nationally, coal mines are responsible for 10 percent of all anthropogenic methane emissions, yet no standards exist to control these emissions.
Already, the EPA has established national limits on methane emissions from municipal solid waste landfills and the agency's own reports show methane controls at coal mines can be exceptionally cost-effective. Overall, the EPA estimates more than 85% of all U.S. coal mine methane emissions can be eliminated at a cost of $15/ton, although when factoring in health benefits, the payback could be as much as $240/ton of methane reduced.
"Methane is a dangerous gas, but it's probably the most cost-effective to control," said Aaron Isherwood with the Sierra Club. "The health, safety, and climate benefits of reducing methane from coal mines are simply too important to ignore."
The petition also calls on the EPA Administrator to adopt strict limits on other dangerous air pollutants released from coal mines, including particulate matter, nitrogen oxide gases, and volatile organic compounds, all toxic air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.
Nitrogen oxides are an especially visible example of the problem. Blasting at strip mines, such as those in the Powder River Basin of northeastern Wyoming, often produces dense, orange clouds of nitrogen oxides. No standards currently limit such pollution from coal mines. Instead, signs posted along public highways warn of orange clouds, advising people to "Avoid Contact."
"Other industries are already required to do their part to protect the air we breathe," said Ted Zukoski, staff attorney with Earthjustice. "It's time for the EPA to hold the coal industry accountable for its air pollution too."
The groups are asking the EPA to respond to the petition within 180 days.
Read the petition (PDF)
For images of methane venting at the West Elk Coal Mine in Western Colorado, see http://picasaweb.google.com/TZactivist/WellPadsAtWestElk?authkey=Gv1sRgCKqS0sv3yL3nGQ&feat=directlink#.
For images of orange clouds and warning signs in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, see http://picasaweb.google.com/WildEarthClimate/PowderRiverBasinCoalMining#.