Momentum Builds Against Mountaintop Removal Mining

EPA embraces science and the law in two strong actions

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In Appalachia, moving mountains is easy. What’s hard is keeping them where they are. Coal companies have used dynamite’s muscle to blast hundreds of the earth’s oldest summits into neighboring valleys, permanently altering the landscape. But two recent developments are shaking the foundations of mountaintop removal mining, signaling that perhaps, at long last, what’s moving is the mountain of science and law that compels the end of this destructive practice.

In late March, the Environmental Protection Agency took dramatic action in proposing to veto a permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the Spruce No. 1 mine in West Virginia—one of the largest mountaintop removal projects ever approved—on the grounds that mine operations would violate the Clean Water Act. The action was presaged by an Earthjustice lawsuit filed in 2007 that challenged approval of a Clean Water Act permit for the mine for failing to follow science and the law.

If the EPA does veto the permit, the agency’s invocation of the Clean Water Act to curtail operations at the Spruce mine will be an important victory. It could have broader repercussions on mountaintop removal in general. (The agency is currently accepting public comments on the veto proposal. You can take action by telling EPA to follow through with the veto and enforce the Clean Water Act.)

But the good news doesn’t end there.

This month, following sound science and the Clean Water Act, the EPA adopted new guidelines that could significantly limit the irreversible damage to Appalachian waterways caused by mountaintop removal. If implemented, EPA’s new guidelines could protect drinking water supplies as well as local residents and ecosystems by making it much harder for coal companies to bury streams with the rubble from dynamited peaks. More than 2,000 miles of streams have already been obliterated. This action is not permanent, however, and Earthjustice is continuing to work hard toward a long-term solution to the problem of mountaintop removal mining.

Momentum for this important decision has been building for a long time. Earthjustice and our clients and allies in the coalfields have worked to protect Appalachian communities and waters for more than a decade, often confronting Bush-era agencies that were more interested in shielding coal companies from the law than in caring for the communities that live in the shortened shadows of former mountains.

The EPA’s recent about-face is a strong indication that the agency is finally ready to address the significant environmental costs of mountaintop removal and the impact on Appalachia’s residents. But it is also a reminder of the potency of our nation’s environmental laws when they are enforced.

And what better time to be reminded of this fact than as we prepare to celebrate the 40th Earth Day this Thursday. After all, the strong environmental laws we enjoy today are a direct result of the American public’s forceful and bipartisan call for environmental protections on the first Earth Day in 1970.

Today, there is an urgent need for new environmental protections, which is why the call this Earth Day is for a strong new law to reduce global warming pollution, the greatest environmental challenge of our times. While that legislation is being crafted, it’s critical to remember that coal is at the heart of global warming pollution, a relationship that lends even more importance to the work being done in Appalachia to end mountaintop removal.

That’s because the destruction caused by mountaintop removal and other coal mining operations in the U.S. isn’t isolated to the coalfields. You don’t have to live in Appalachia or other coal areas to be affected by what happens there.

The pollution generated by coal affects us all. Burning coal for electricity releases large amounts of global warming pollution and many other pollutants that poison the air we breathe and the water we drink. The waste that remains after burning is often dumped into unlined landfills, ponds, or underground mines, where toxic metals leach into drinking water supplies. All Americans bear the costs of the many ways we have given coal a free ride.

In order to protect people and remove coal as one of the biggest roadblocks to a clean energy future, Earthjustice is using litigation and advocacy to target every stage of coal’s dirty lifespan. The recent victories over mountaintop removal are an auspicious sign that momentum continues to shift towards clean energy.

As Earth Day approaches, in addition to celebrating past victories, we are also looking forward to the kind of world we hope to inhabit in the years to come. An end to mountaintop removal mining, a strong law to tackle global warming, and regulations to protect people from toxic coal waste are just some of the many victories we at Earthjustice will fight for as we pursue a clean energy future and a safer, healthier planet.

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.”