EPA Fails To Address Deadly Coal Mine Pollution

EPA’s do-nothing approach threatens climate, public health and welfare, groups allege


Ted Zukoski, Earthjustice, (303) 996-9622


Eitan Bencuya, Sierra Club, (202) 495-3047


Vera Pardee, Center for Biological Diversity, (858) 717-1448


Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians (303) 437-7663

A coalition of conservation groups expressed deep disappointment with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’ refusal today to address evidence showing the agency should protect clean air and climate from a major polluter: coal mines.

Orange cloud over the Black Thunder coal mine. These clouds are nitrogen oxide gases,
which are poisonous.  (WildEarth Guardians)

“EPA has chosen to give the coal industry a free pass to pollute while dismissing a major threat to the air we depend upon for our health, well-being, and our safety,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, one of four groups bringing the lawsuit. “Worse, they’ve turned their back on a win-win opportunity to combat global warming. With coal mines spewing methane, particulate matter, and toxic orange clouds, EPA’s ‘decision’ is a leap backwards for America.”

A coalition of groups—including WildEarth Guardians, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, and Environmental Integrity Project represented by the non-profit environmental law firm Earthjustice—filed a petition with EPA in 2010 asking it to curtail the pollution spewed by coal mines. The petition called on EPA to list coal mines as a source of dangerous air pollution under the Clean Air Act’s “new source performance” program. This listing would require the agency to ensure the best systems of emission reduction are used to keep coal mine air pollution in check. EPA has set such clean-air standards for gravel mines, coal-fired power plants, coal-processing plants and dozens of other sources, but not yet for coal mine pollution.

There’s little consolation for anyone driving through when an orange cloud of nitrogen oxide shows up.  (WildEarth Guardians)

When EPA failed to act on the petition, the groups in 2011 sued EPA over the agency’s unreasonable delay. Today, nearly three years after the petition was filed, EPA issued what it calls a “final decision” on the petition: a 5-page statement that the agency will not even commit to when, if ever, it might ever address the millions of tons coal mine air pollutants because of so-called “other priorities.” EPA also apparently believes it would be too time-consuming to determine whether the methane emitted from coal mines might somehow have different climate change impacts than methane emitted from other sources.

“According to the EPA, they are just too busy to protect Americans from this source of deadly air pollution,” said Joanne Spalding, Managing Attorney at Sierra Club. “The EPA knows better than anyone that the pollution from coal mines worsens asthma, shortens lifespans, and is heating the planet. While the EPA has taken important steps on air pollution from vehicles and power plants, they cannot ignore this critical public health threat.”

Coal shovel in the background. The dust cloud lingers for several minutes.  (WildEarth Guardians)

Nationwide, coal mines release a noxious group of harmful air pollutants known to be dangerous and in some cases lethal, including:

  • Methane: Coal mines release 10 percent of all methane emissions in the United States. A greenhouse gas with more than 20 times the heat-trapping effect of carbon dioxide, methane is also explosive.
  • Nitrogen dioxide: A poisonous gas that reacts with sunlight to form ozone, nitrogen dioxide forms from blasting at strip coal mines, which creates poisonous orange clouds. In Wyoming alone, the amount of nitrogen dioxide released by strip mining equals the amount normally released by 1.12 million passenger vehicles.
  • Particulate matter: Dust and debris are released during all stages of mining, and in the United States coal mines release more than 17,000 tons of particulate matter annually, including more than 10,000 tons of particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter, or 1/28th the width of a human hair, the most dangerous form of particulates.
  • Volatile organic compounds: Gases that react with sunlight to form ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of smog. Coal mines nationwide release more than 1,790 tons of volatile organic compounds every year.

Methane drainage well site carved into hillside.  (WildEarth Guardians)

“Setting pollution limits for coal mines should have been a real no-brainer,” said Vera Pardee with the Center for Biological Diversity. “There is no excuse for EPA’s refusal to do its job. There’s huge potential here for reducing dangerous air pollution—including from closed mines that aren’t producing coal anymore—while we transition as quickly as possible away from coal and other dirty fossil fuels that harm our climate.”

EPA’s failure to address coal mine pollution is even more inexplicable given that off-the-shelf technology exists that permits mines to operate safely while reducing or eliminating much of the pollution, especially methane. Mines around the globe are flaring methane, capturing it and putting it in pipelines for commercial or household use, or burning it on-site to generate electricity.

Coal dust from blasting creates a huge black particulate cloud. View to the north over the Black Thunder coal mine in Wyoming.  (WildEarth Guardians)

Overall, the EPA estimates that more than 85 percent of all U.S. coal-mine methane emissions can be eliminated at a cost of $15/ton. This cost is negligible since the health benefits alone could be as much as $240/ton of methane reduced, according to a National Academy of Sciences study.

“EPA has chosen to ignore evidence—much of which the agency collected itself—proving that air pollution from coal mines is endangering our health and well-being across the country,” said Ted Zukoski, a staff attorney with Earthjustice, the law firm bringing the suit. “EPA’s failure to even look at coal mine air pollution shows a blatant disregard for our children, for our planet, and for our future.”

The groups are reviewing EPA’s “decision” and weighing legal options.

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