In March of 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would be subjecting mountaintop removal permits to increased
scrutiny. Since then, only one such permit in West
Virginia has passed muster, and coal operators have
been clamoring for concrete standards so they know how their permits will be
The EPA released its criteria on Thursday. In a conference
call with reporters, Administrator Lisa Jackson reiterated that the stricter
guidelines are not designed to put an end to coal mining.
“Let me be clear,” she said. “This is not about ending coal
mining. This is about ending coal mining pollution. Coal communities should not
have to sacrifice their environment or their health or their economic future to
mountaintop mining. They deserve the full protection of our Clean Water law.”
Jackson says the
guidelines are designed to increase transparency and protect the environment.
One of the biggest changes is a more rigorous standard for mine runoff. She
says nearby streams will be tested for salinity, which is a measure of
conductivity, and the streams won’t be allowed to exceed 500 microsiemens.
“Now for those of you without degrees in chemistry, the
important thing to note is that this benchmark prevents irreversible damage to
the physical and biological integrity of Appalachian streams and produces 95
percent of aquatic organisms living in them,” she said. “This is a clear
statement of where EPA stands and what we expect from any mining projects going
The news was greeted with enthusiasm by environmentalists.
Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition says she feels
“The EPA’s new guidance on stream conductivity and the
emphasis on the science really shows us that at least this government agency is
finally listening to scientists, too,” she said.
State regulators reacted less favorably. Randy Huffman is
the secretary of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. He
says he’s glad the EPA finally made the information public, but he disagrees
with the stricter runoff standards.
”The conductivity numbers that they have suggested that are necessary to be
protective of aquatic life, based upon what we believe after 10 years of
collective data, seem to be overprotective,” he said. “This seems to be a very
restrictive standard, so that’s something that we’ll be discussing with them
What the new water standards could mean, Jackson
said, is fewer valley fills. A valley fill is created when the rock blasted off
of the mountaintop is dumped into a nearby valley or stream bed.
Jackson said the
only West Virginia permit that’s
been approved so far—for Hobet Mine in Lincoln
County—was approved partly because
of its lack of valley fills. Similarly, the EPA is moving forward to veto the permit for the Spruce Number One Mine in Logan—and
it does have valley fills.