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The Charleston Gazette (West Virginia)

Mountaintop Removal Damage 'Irreversible,' Senate Hears

DEP official only witness to defend practice

Ken Ward, Jr.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Mountaintop removal coal mining is causing "immense and irreversible" damage to Appalachian hills, streams and forests, members of a U.S. Senate subcommittee were told Thursday.

A federal regulator joined a university expert, a West Virginia activist and a Tennessee environmental commissioner in criticizing large-scale strip mining's impacts, as lawmakers consider a bipartisan bill that would curb the practice.

"We must consider the cost of coal from the cradle to the grave," said Maria Gunnoe, a Boone County native who won the international Goldman Prize for her anti-mining activism. "We have the opportunity to stop the annihilation of mountains and people by mountaintop removal and to change the history of energy in this country."

Margaret Palmer, a University of Maryland ecologist who has been studying mountaintop removal's impacts, explained that scientists have clearly documented the damage being done.

"The mountain summits that are removed to reach the coal may not have the same shape or height they previously did, the streams that are buried when rocks and dirt are dumped over the side of the mountain into the valleys below are gone forever, and there is no evidence to date that mitigation actions can compensate for the lost natural resources and ecological functions of the headwater streams that are buried," Palmer told lawmakers.

Palmer and Gunnoe were among those who testified in a Senate Environmental and Public Works subcommittee hearing scheduled to examine mountaintop removal, the Obama administration's plans for regulating it, and legislation that would outlaw most -- if not all -- valley fills.

The only witness who defended mountaintop removal was Randy Huffman, who as secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection is the Manchin administration's top strip-mining regulator.

Huffman said his agency has an "effective and progressive" regulatory program, and that his main concern is that Obama administration efforts to more closely regulate the practice "have the potential to significantly limit all types of mining."

"West Virginia and the nation need jobs and coal," Huffman told senators. "Coal production is the leading revenue generator for West Virginia, and many in the state are concerned about losing the opportunities for future economic development associated with mountaintop mining."

Sens. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., introduced the Appalachian Restoration Act to rewrite the federal Clean Water Act so that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could not permit mining waste to be dumped into streams as "fill material."

Cardin said that, among other concerns, he is worried that the environmental damage from mountaintop removal may be hindering other economic development efforts in the Appalachian region.

Alexander noted that his home state has already banned valley fills, and Tennessee Deputy Commissioner of Environment and Conservation Paul Sloan encouraged lawmakers to expand that prohibition to protect the region's vital headwaters streams.

"Just as the circulatory systems in our bodies rely upon the healthy functioning of billions of capillaries, the nation's rivers and streams will not be healthy unless the headwaters are protected," Sloan said in prepared testimony.

Randy Pomponio, director of environmental assessment for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Mid-Atlantic regional office, told lawmakers EPA studies have documented impacts that agency officials hope to try to reduce.

Mountaintop removal has buried an average of 120 miles of streams a year, Pomponio said, and studies show valley fills not only eliminate those waterways, but also degrade water quality downstream.

EPA studies also have documented the elimination of nearly 1,200 square miles of Appalachian forests -- an area larger than Kanawha County -- between 1992 and 2013.

"Should these forests not be restored, invaluable water quality and ecological services will be lost," Pomponio said. "Forest losses of this magnitude, although largely temporary, are not inconsequential."


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