EPA Puts Serious Restrictions on Mountaintop Removal Mining

Hot on the heels of the horrible decision to open more of America’s coastlines to oil prospecting and drilling, the Obama Administration has now announced new environmental guidelines that will effectively put an end to mountaintop removal coal mining. Unlike drilling, this is fantastic news.

(I wanted to say something clever about how “Obama giveth and he taketh away,” because this MTR announcement is as great as the offshore drilling announcement was bad. But then I realized I’d just be giving the Teabaggers ammo to say “See, the loony left is deifying Obama, their glorious socialist leader!” So to hell with the humor. This news doesn’t need the quip to spice it up anyway.)

As I wrote last week, MTR coal mining is the most egregiously destructive means for extracting coal — which the most egregiously dirty fossil fuel. As a refresher, the basic process is this: A mountain is clearcut to remove all trees and vegetation, then the top of the mountain is blown off to get at the coal underneath. The blasted-off material is then typically dumped into nearby valleys, burying local streams in all sorts of toxic debris. This practice often causes permanent damage to local ecosystems and makes the streams unfit for swimming, fishing, or drinking.

What Obama’s EPA announced yesterday is not a ban on MTR, but amounts, in practice, to a serious limitation on how, and how often, it will occur. The dumping of toxic debris from MTR sites into valleys, known as “valley fills,” is MTR’s achilles heel. According to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, valley fills will have a hard time meeting the new water standards: “You are talking about either no or very few valley fills that are going to be able to meet standards like this,” the UK’s Guardian reports her as saying. “What the science is telling us is that it would be untrue to say you can have any more than minimal valley fill and not see irreversible damage to stream health.”

What the new regulations do is quite interesting. They set limits on the conductivity of streams near coal mining operations. That’s “conductivity” as in “electrical conductivity,” which is actually determined by measuring the salinity, or salt content, of the stream. Conductivity is an effective way to gauge the concentration of pollutants in a stream.

The EPA will solicit public comments on the new guidelines, which will nonetheless be effective immediately on an interim basis. The agency will then decide whether or not to modify the guidelines after considering the public comments and the results of several scientific reports.

With the EPA’s decision last week to deny a permit for a new MTR coal mining operation for the first time in almost 40 years, a clear trend has emerged: The EPA is at least reining in MTR coal mining. This is definitely cause to break out the bubbly, friends.

Savor it, because soon enough the industry’s lawsuits will file in and we’ll have more work to do.

Image credit: Silvia Alba

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