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A Victory for Appalachia

The days of rubber stamped permits for mountaintop removal coal mining are over, for now.
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Vally fill runoff, photo by Matt Wasson

Mountaintop removal's valley fill procedure takes a toll on a mountain stream in eastern Kentucky.

Photo by Matt Wasson

For nearly three decades, coal companies that practice mountaintop removal have been able to dump mining waste in valleys without a thorough permitting review—allowing them to effectively sidestep the Clean Water Act. Yesterday, in an important victory for Appalachian citizens and clean water advocates, the Army Corps of Engineers suspended its long-standing fast-track approval process (MWA Permit 21). Companies seeking to fill valleys will now have to seek "individual" permits for their projects, which will undergo greater scrutiny, including a public commenting process. Communities will now have a voice in the discussion of whether a valley fill permit should be approved in their backyard.

This positive step for Appalachian communities and waterways is the result of the growing movement to end mountaintop removal. The Army Corps received over 23,000 written comments on the proposal to suspend the NWP21 permits. Despite jeers, threats, and intimidation from coal industry supporters, brave citizens from impacted communities spoke up loud and clear during the public hearing process. These citizens, confident in their position that valleyfill permits should not be streamlined and deserve public comment, were unshakable. Here is a video showing the hearing in Charleston, WV:

Communities will now have a voice in the discussion of whether a valley fill permit should be approved in their backyard.

Mountaintop removal is a form of strip mining that uses high-end explosives to literally blast off up to several hundred feet of a mountaintop. The resulting waste is most often shoved into adjacent valleys, burying headwater streams. These streams flow into rivers, providing drinking water for millions of Americans on the east coast. Meg Gaffney-Smith, Chief of the Army Corps of Engineers Regulatory Program stated that, due to “concerns with this particular type of mining technique, impacts to aquatic resources and water quality, and how well stream mitigation projects were performing....we believed it was best to suspend NW permit 21 in this region.”

Nationwide permits were created to regulate "activities that have only minimal impacts to the aquatic environment." As anybody directly impacted by mountaintop removal can tell you, burying streams has major impacts on aquatic life that reverberate through the entire ecosystem. Recent scientific studies have validated what local residents have been saying for years. Most recently, Margaret Palmer, in her blockbuster scientific study on the effects of mountaintop removal, stated, “The scientific evidence of the severe environmental and human impacts from mountaintop removal is strong and irrefutable. Its impacts are pervasive and long lasting and there is no evidence that any mitigation practices successfully reverse the damage it causes.”

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And while there is definite reason for celebration, the flip side is that the changes announced today are not codified into any rule or law. The Army Corps, at any time, can reverse this decision and reinstate the NWP21 process. If nothing else, the process will be reviewed once again when NWP 21 expires on March 18, 2012. Bills introduced into Congress would go a long way to stopping mountaintop removal altogether, a practice which has already destroyed over 500 mountains and buried and polluted over 2,000 miles of streams in the Appalachian region. Both the Clean Water Protection Act (H.R. 1310) in the House and the Appalachia Restoration Act (S 696) are seeking to end valley fills associated with mountaintop removal, and both bills are attracting an incredible number of cosponsors. Since the economics of most mountaintop removal mining depends on the use of valley fills, passing these bills would go a long way to curbing the practice.

Thanks to the hard work of Appalachian residents and their allies around the country, we're one step closer to ending mountaintop removal.


Sandra Diaz

Sandra 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.

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