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A Turning Point for Mountaintop Removal?

In an historic move, the EPA has vetoed a permit for mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia.

Spruce Mine, Photo by Vivian Stockman; Flyover courtesy SouthWings

The Environmental Protection Agency halted the Spruce Mine mountaintop removal project that would have caused damage to surrounding areas and residents, like those of Pigeon Roost Hollow, pictured above.

Photo by Vivian Stockman; Flyover courtesy SouthWings

For the first time in its history, the Environmental Protection Agency is using its authority under the Clean Water Act to veto an already issued permit—that of Spruce Mine, a mountaintop removal coal mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia that would have been the largest in the state.

The mine project was permitted in 2007 by the Army Corps of Engineers; it had not been approved by the EPA, which early on raised concerns about the project's impact. Upon reviewing the proposal, the EPA found that the mine “would use destructive and unsustainable mining practices that jeopardize the health of Appalachian communities and clean water on which they depend,” according to a statement released by Peter Silva, the agency’s assistant administrator for water. “We have responsibility under the law to protect water quality and safeguard the people who rely on clean water.”

"We have responsibility under the law to protect water quality and safeguard the people who rely on clean water."
      -Peter Silva, EPA

With this action, the EPA stopped the burial of over 6 miles of headwater streams and the destruction of mountaintops and forests covering over 2,200 acres. Over 1 million acres—including 500 mountains and 2,000 miles of streams—have already been destroyed in the region. The decision will also prevent the further sickening of downstream communities, which are already contending with water pollution, coal dust, and, elevated rates of cancer.

In addition to extensive scientific study, the EPA reviewed more than 50,000 public comments regarding the mine and held a large public hearing in West Virginia. “The science completely validates what we have been saying for more than a decade: These types of mining operations are destroying our streams and forests and nearby residents’ health, and even driving entire communities to extinction,” said Janet Keating, of Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, a leading community group fighting mountaintop removal.

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, photo by Laura Heller
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Representatives of the coal industry have condemned the decision, calling it unfair to mining. In a statement, the agency countered that the veto “comes after discussions with the company spanning more than a year failed to produce an agreement that would lead to a significant decrease in impacts to the environment and Appalachian communities.”

Opponents of mountaintop removal have applauded the EPA for enforcing the Clean Water Act and hope the decision bodes well for the handling of future permits. But let’s not forget that they were simply doing their job. Which is not as easy as it sounds; the direction of administrative agencies is heavily guided by who is in the White House. While it’s clear that the Obama administration takes public comments seriously, we have a responsibility to help ensure that the EPA has the political cover needed to continue to listen to science and enforce the law on the many other permits under review.

Two bills currently in Congress would help end the most egregious mountaintop removal mining—the Clean Water Protection Act, in the house, and in the Senate, the Appalachia Restoration Act. These bills enjoyed bi-partisan support in the past Congresses, and are expected to do the same this Congress. In fact, mountain lovers have already stormed Capitol Hill to regain support for these bills in the new Congress that began last week. Passing a federal bill requires an ever-growing national movement, uniting those who are passionate about clean water, healthy communities, and the future of Appalachia.


Sandra DiazSandra Diaz wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Sandra is the director for development and communications at Appalachian Voices. You can find out more about the movement to end mountaintop removal at ilovemountains.org.

Interested?

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    Appalachian residents are serious about putting a stop to mountaintop removal coal mining—and building a more sustainable economy to take its place.
  • Last Mountain Standing
    The last intact mountain in West Virginia's Coal River Valley is slated for mountaintop removal coal mining. Residents have other ideas.
  • Mountain Memories: Interview with Judy Bonds
    West Virginia activist Judy Bonds died of cancer last week. Before she died, she gave this interview about fighting to save her home from mountaintop removal coal mining.
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