Mountaintop Removal Mining Leads to Substantial and Irreversible Harm, Studies Show

Bush administration proposes to weaken, not strengthen environmental protections


Joan Mulhern, Earthjustice, 202-667-4500 x 223
Cat Lazaroff, Earthjustice, 202-667-4500 x 213
Sara Dzeb, Friends of the Earth, 202-783-7400 x 220
Jim Hecker, Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, 202-797-8600

A long-awaited draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) assessing the environmental and social impacts of Mountaintop Removal coal mining shows that the harm caused by this practice is far more pervasive and permanent than previously believed.

Yet the draft EIS — released today by the Bush administration — fails to conclude that mountaintop removal mining should be curtailed, or that its impacts should be mitigated or reduced. In fact, the Administration is expected to call for an easing of existing environmental restrictions on this damaging mining method.

Mountaintop removal mining is a form of strip mining in which coal companies literally blast hundreds of feet off the tops of mountain peaks and push millions of tons of mining waste rubble into surrounding valleys, burying miles and miles of streams.

“The EIS studies confirmed the obvious fact that blowing up mountains and burying streams has enormous and irreversible environmental consequences,” said Joan Mulhern, Earthjustice’s Senior Legislative Counsel. “It is astonishing, even for the Bush administration, that their response to this information is to further weaken the environmental limits on mountaintop removal mining.”

“The administration is snugly in the pocket of the coal industry,” said Mulhern. “There is no other way to explain why the administration’s policy recommendations are completely at odds with the scientific studies.”

For example, the studies show that:

  • Over 700 miles of Appalachian streams “have already been eliminated by valley fills;”

  • Aquatic life forms downstream of valley fills are being harmed or killed; and

  • “Stream chemistry monitoring efforts show significant increases” in concentrations of selenium – a metalloid that according to the EPA “can be highly toxic to aquatic life even at relatively low concentrations” – downstream of mountaintop removal mining and valley fill operations.

“The draft EIS makes no commitment to retain the only existing limit on valley fill size – the 250 acre limit that has been in effect since 1998,” said Jim Hecker of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. “This document represents a wholesale retreat from the promise made by the federal government in 1998, when the agencies involved pledged to reduce environmental harm caused by valley fills – not increase it.”

An economic study prepared as part of the EIS shows that even under the most restrictive scenarios studied by the agencies, the economic costs of dramatically limiting the size of valley fills would be minimal, because:

  • there would still be adequate coal to supply the nation’s energy needs;

  • the price of electricity would not significantly increase; and

  • the price of coal would increase by only about a dollar per ton, an amount which is eclipsed by the volatility of the market (the price of coal has varied from $17 to $40 per ton over the past two years).

In all, more than 30 studies were funded by the federal government as part of the draft EIS process. Yet instead of acting on the findings contained in those studies, the Bush administration is advocating more studies, and a shift in the process of approving and overseeing mountaintop removal mining — changes that will not help the ecosystems and communities placed at risk by this type of mining.

“The government is using these studies like wallpaper,” said Hecker. “They look pretty as background, but the government is doing nothing to act on them.”

The studies behind the draft EIS show that mountaintop removal mining impacts not only stream ecosystems, but also hundreds of acres of healthy, productive Appalachian forests. These forests are destroyed when the tops of mountains are blasted away, and cannot be restored to their previous health. The devastation also impacts the Appalachian communities and culture that have existed in these mountains for hundreds of years.

“It’s no shock that the science says mountaintop removal devastates the environment,” said Sara Zdeb, Legislative Director at Friends of the Earth. “It’s even less surprising that the Bush administration’s solution is to further loosen environmental restrictions on Big Coal.”

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