All Eyes on Spruce

One key decision on a mountaintop removal mine will signal what's to come

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At the end of this month, all eyes will be on the EPA as it makes its next key decision on mountaintop removal coal mining: its preliminary determination whether to veto the permit for the Spruce No. 1 mine, due September 24.

The Spruce No. 1 mine is one of the largest mountaintop removal mining projects ever considered in Appalachia. Last spring, the EPA released a proposal to rescind this permit based on scientific and legal analysis showing that the mine does not adhere to Clean Water Act standards.

The EPA must do its job of enforcing the Clean Water Act and finalize this veto, or the mining company will proceed to permanently bury more than seven miles of streams with mining waste, severely degrade water quality in streams adjacent and downstream from the mine, and devastate 2,278 aces of forestland — in an area already hard-hit by this type of mining.

Why is this one mine so important?

During the Bush administration, mountaintop removal mining experienced a huge boom, thanks to a flock of Bush-era loopholes, exemptions and midnight regulations that lifted environmental laws, scientific processes and accountability out of the way of the big coal companies.

President Bush’s sleight of hand allowed King Coal to begin enjoying freedom from laws that required the mining industry to be responsible with its pollution — the very laws that are supposed to protect the people and communities of Appalachia. The result has been widespread environmental destruction, contamination of waters, the burying of 2,000 miles of streams with mining waste, the obliteration of wildlife and ecosystems, and the ruin of whole towns, hollows, and valleys in the region.

When the mountains of Appalachia go, so go the waters, health, livelihood, culture, and economic sustainability of the Appalachian communities.

Changes were promised by the new administration. On the campaign trail, President Obama expressed serious concerns about mountaintop removal mining. “We have to find more environmentally sound ways of mining coal than simply blowing the tops off mountains,” he said. “We’re tearing up the Appalachian Mountains because of our dependence on fossil fuels.”

The president also emphasized the role of the Clean Water Act, the seminal 40-year-old law that, if actually followed, would prohibit the destructive practice of mountaintop removal mining due to the need to protect the health and integrity of our nation’s waterways, which are being buried and contaminated by the mining waste. Said the president:

I want strong enforcement of the Clean Water Act. I will make sure the head of the Environmental Protection Agency believes in the environment and enforces the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. What I want to do is work with experts here in West Virginia to find out what we need to do to protect the waterways here. That’s going to be a primary task of the head of my Environmental Protection Agency.

More than a year and a half into his presidency, the problem of mountaintop removal mining persists, more mountains have been razed, and more streams have been buried. While the EPA and other agencies have taken some steps to begin to address the environmental impacts of this practice, such as promising to take on a careful review of almost 100 mountaintop removal mining permit applications to determine if granting them would be lawful, the Obama administration has yet to close the Bush loopholes and get serious about enforcing the Clean Water Act for once and for all.

Those watching the administration are still looking for signs that these promises of strong enforcement will be fulfilled.

The Spruce mine decision is a harbinger of what is to come from the Obama administration and the EPA on this issue. It may be just one mine, but it is a test of the administration’s courage against the powerful special interests of the coal industry and the administration’s resolve to usher in real change, and finally bring about an era of accountability, responsibility, and sustainability.

Take action now and tell the EPA to veto the permit for the Spruce mine.

Learn more about our campaign to stop mountaintop removal mining.

Liz Judge worked at Earthjustice from 2010–2016. During that time, she worked on mountaintop removal mining, national forests, and clean water issues, and led the media and advocacy communications teams.