New Regulations Will Put an End to Mountaintop Mining

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

New Regulations Will Put an End to Mountaintop Mining

Obama administration proposals will make destructive mountaintop mining operations effectively impossible

by
Suzanne Goldenberg

Mountaintop coal mining operation in West Virginia. (Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

The Obama
administration effectively called time Thursday on one of the most
destructive industries in America, proposing new
environmental guidelines for mountaintop mining removal.

The move was seen as
a bold action from the White House, which has in the past disappointed
environmental organisations for failing to move more aggressively on
pollution and climate change.

But in a conference call with
journalists, just an hour after the administration for the first time
finalised regulations setting limits on greenhouse gas emissions from
cars, officials spelled out
guidelines that they acknowledged would make it virtually impossible
for mining companies in Appalachia to carry on with business as usual.

The
economics of mountaintop mining removal involve a highly destructive
practice of blasting through hundreds of feet of mountaintop to get at
thin but valuable seams of coal. The debris is removed to "valley
fills", and nearly 2,000 miles of streams in Appalachia have been buried
beneath such fills.

In recent years, opposition
to the practice has spread from local activists to celebrities,
with Robert Kennedy Jr and Darryl Hannah demanding an end to the method.

Lisa
Jackson, the head of the Enviromental Protection Agency, said today it
is unlikely that valley fills would meet the new standards. "You are
talking about either no or very few valley fills that are going to be
able to meet standards like this," she said. "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."

Jackson
said the new guidelines were not intended to end coal mining. But she
admitted it would be hard work for mining companies to meet the new
standard.

"They are going to require folks to roll up their
sleeves to protect water quality," she said. "We believe that they are
often going to need adjustment to projects proposed because of these new
guidelines."

The guidelines laid out by Jackson today would set
limits on conductivity in streams near mining sites. The electrical
conductivity of streams is seen as a measure of the presence of harmful
pollutants.

Officials said the new policy, which will apply to
all new proposals and some 79 permits now under review, would protect
95% of aquatic life in streams in Appalachia.

EPA scientists
have established that streams with conductivity greater than a certain
level - 500 microsiemens
per centimetre, a measure of salinity - were irreparably damaged.
Officials said today the EPA would block any proposed operations
projected to exceed its figure.

Today's guidelines mark a gradual
tightening of conditions for mountain coal mining. Last week, the EPA
took the rare step of vetoing
a West Virginia mine that had already been granted a permit.

Tbe
EPA said the Spruce Number One mine, which was approved under George
Bush administration in 2007, would bury up to seven miles of stream, and
that toxic chemicals would hurt aquatic life. If approved, it would
have been the largest mine in West Virginia.

The National Mining
Association immediately condemned the move, saying it would cost jobs
throughout Appalachia.

The Rainforest Action Network said: "The
EPA has finally taken a leap to protect America's mountains and drinking
water."

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