EPA Provides Hope On Mountaintop Removal Mining

Agency puts hold on dozens of mining permits for environmental review

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On most environmental matters, the Obama administration scores high marks from us, especially for revitalizing the role of science and respect for the law in the agency’s decisions. The shift in ethos from eight years of ruinous Bush policies occurred almost immediately after Obama took office. We have seen dramatic positive changes in how some federal agencies deal with the key issues of climate change and clean energy, roadless protections, clean air, and hazardous waste regulations.

But, until last week, Obama’s actions on mountaintop removal mining largely tracked the course set by Bush. As we previously noted  in April we hoped that the EPA was going to put the brakes on 48 mountaintop removal permits. We were taken aback in May when the agency instead let 42 of the permits go ahead without further scrutiny. This was a disheartening setback.

The EPA’s most recent decision, which requires the permits for new mines to be more closely studied by EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, is the kind of welcome news we needed. It suggests that the administration may be shifting its approach to honor what science and the law dictate on this issue as on others. And both science and the law compel a ban on mountaintop removal mining. That is what we had been led to expect from statements made by then-Senator Obama when he campaigned for the presidency.

But, it’s also important to note that EPA’s latest move didn’t just happen. The campaign against mountaintop removal locally and nationally has been building over the last decade, involving litigation by Earthjustice, our partners and clients, directly challenging permits for violating the Clean Water Act and other laws, educating the public, lobbying Congress, and mobilizing opposition to the practice wherever and whenever we can.

The announcement by Administrator Jackson gives her agency 14 days to consider its decision to hold these permits up for further review, after which the Army Corps and EPA have 60 days to review each of the permits. If they give those permits the hard look that the law requires, both agencies will have to determine that these mines will cause irreparable harm to the streams and valleys of Appalachia and that they violate the Clean Water Act. Against the background of all the good environmental work done so far by the administration, we hope that here, too, the best available science and law will be applied.

After these reviews, the next step must be to deny all the permits. And following that, we strongly urge the administration to reinstate and enforce clean water rules thatBush gutted -this should keep industries from dumping their waste into streams.

We know that President Obama faces heavy pressure from the coal lobby and from the state of West Virginia, both of which trumpet the need for coal and for jobs—but these are weak arguments. Mountaintop removal produces only 7 percent of our nation’s coal needs; and it employs dramatically fewer workers than traditional mining, as witnessed by the steep decline in coal-related jobs in the last four decades. In return for those fewer jobs, Appalachia’s communities have been devastated.

It’s important for the president to stand strong in the face of these pressures and support EPA in the permit reviewing process. Administrator Jackson is on the right path and needs all the help she can get.

Trip Van Noppen served as Earthjustice’s president from 2008 until he retired in 2018. A North Carolina native, Trip said of his experience: “Serving as the steward of Earthjustice for the last decade has been the greatest honor of my life.”