50 Dems Urge EPA to Ignore Manchin, Fight Against Mountaintop Mining

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The Hill

50 Dems Urge EPA to Ignore Manchin, Fight Against Mountaintop Mining

by
Mike Lillis

Fifty House Democrats are encouraging the EPA to continue its efforts to rein in mountaintop removal coal mining

In a letter sent Friday to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, the lawmakers said new mining rules
designed to protect the health of neighboring residents "represent
significant progress for communities struggling in the shadow of
mining."

The letter arrived just two days after West
Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin — the Democrat in a surprisingly tough race to
replace the late-Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) — sued the EPA over
the new rules. The House Democrats didn't mention Manchin or the suit,
but the timing of their letter is likely not a coincidence.

"When
scientific research shows that surface mining routinely violates
downstream water quality standards," the Democrats wrote, "it is
critical for EPA to ensure that states and mining companies are aware of
the pollution levels that cause harm, that discharge permits
incorporate adequate safeguards, and that the permits are enforced."

Among
those endorsing the letter were Reps. Frank Pallone (N.J.), Earl
Blumenauer (Ore.), Henry Waxman (Calif.), Pete Stark (Calif.) and Debbie
Wasserman Schultz (Fla.). 

Mountaintop removal mining — in which
companies blast away Appalachian peaks and push the debris into adjacent
valleys — has been a boon to the industry, cutting labor costs and
eliminating the need to truck the waste to more distant dumping grounds.
But many scientists say the dollar savings for companies comes at the
expense of human health.

A study published in the journal Science
in January, for instance, noted that "adult hospitalizations for
chronic pulmonary disorders and hypertension are elevated as a function
of county-level coal production, as are rates of mortality; lung cancer;
and chronic heart, lung, and kidney disease. 

"Health problems
are for women and men, so effects are not simply a result of direct
occupational exposure of predominantly male coal miners," the
researchers wrote.

Commenting on the study, lead author Margaret
Palmer, a scientist at the University of Maryland, said "the scientific
evidence of the severe environmental and human impacts from mountaintop
mining 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."

More recently, researchers at Virginia Tech and West Virginia University found that people living near streams poisoned by mines are at higher risk of getting cancer.

Responding
to concerns raised by health advocates, environmentalists and community
activists, the EPA in April said it won't approve permits for
mountaintop removal mines projected to raise stream toxicity above a
certain level. 

The new guidelines gauge
the health of streams based on their conductivity, which is a good
indicator of water’s purity. The runoff from Appalachian mines tends to
contain toxins like magnesium, sulfate, bicarbonate, and potassium — all
ions that raise conductivity levels. The higher the conductivity, the
more harmful the water is to living things.

EPA says it will
reject mining projects expected to raise stream conductivity more than
five times the normal level. Effectively, the agency attached hard
numerical standards to environmental protections more vaguely outlined
in the Clean Water Act. 

Jackson in April said there are “no or very few valley fills that will meet standards like this.”

The
guidelines came under immediate attack from the mining industry and
many coal country lawmakers, who argued that the restrictions will
hobble an industry that's vital for creating Appalachian jobs. Arguing
that same point last week, Manchin, a former coal broker, sued the EPA
over the new rules.

"We are asking the court to reverse EPA's
actions before West Virginia's economy and our mining community face
further hardship and uncertainty and weaken the strength of this
country," Manchin told reporters.

Two days later, the 50 House Democrats penned their letter offering full support of the EPA rules.  

"Surface
mining in the steep slopes of Appalachia has disrupted the biological
integrity of an area about the size of Delaware, buried approximately
2,000 miles of streams with mining waste, and contaminated downstream
areas with toxic and bio-accumulative selenium," the lawmakers wrote.

"The
ultimate success of the new guidance depends upon effective
implementation by EPA and its regional offices. Mining companies and
some state agencies may reject this guidance, but we strongly urge the
EPA to carry it out aggressively."

The Democrats also vowed to continue their support for legislation
— sponsored by Pallone and GOP Rep. Dave Reichert (Wash.) —  that would
prohibit mine companies from dumping debris in streams altogether.
Similar legislation has been introduced by Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and
Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).

The idea is to eliminate mountaintop
removal by making the process economically unfeasible to companies that
would be forced to truck the waste off-site.

"Nothing less," the Democrats wrote to Jackson, "will protect Appalachia from the devastation of mountaintop removal mining."

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