EPA Yanks Permit for West Virginia’s Largest Mountaintop Removal Mine

EPA Yanks Permit for West Virginia’s Largest Mountaintop Removal Mine

WASHINGTON, DC, January 13, 2011 (ENS) – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today vetoed the largest single mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history – the proposed disposal of mining waste in streams at the Mingo-Logan Coal Company’s Spruce No. 1 coal mine.

A Clean Water Act permit for this coal mine originally was issued in 2007 under the Bush-era EPA after a 10-year review but was then delayed in the courts.

West Virginia Acting Governor Earl Ray Tomblin said the state will continue to fight the decision, but environmental and community groups who have fought for years to protect Appalachian streams from mountaintop removal mining breathed a collective sigh of relief.

EPA officials said the agency’s final determination on the Spruce Mine comes after extensive scientific study, a major public hearing in West Virginia and review of more than 50,000 public comments, and after year-long discussions with the company failed to produce an agreement that would lead to a significant decrease in impacts to the environment and Appalachian communities.

Sludge dam near mountaintop removal coal mining site in Logan County, West Virginia (Photo by Kent Kessinger courtesy Clean Coal is Dirty)

“The proposed Spruce No. 1 Mine would use destructive and unsustainable mining practices that jeopardize the health of Appalachian communities and clean water on which they depend,” said EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Peter Silva.

Mingo Logan is a subsidiary of Arch Coal, Inc., the second largest U.S. coal producer. The EPA’s action prevents the mine from disposing of the waste into streams unless the company identifies an alternative mining design that would avoid irreversible damage to water quality and meets the requirements of the Clean Water Act.

Despite EPA’s willingness to consider alternatives, Silva said that Mingo Logan offered no new proposed mining configurations in response to EPA’s Recommended Determination issued last March.

“Coal and coal mining are part of our nation’s energy future and EPA has worked with companies to design mining operations that adequately protect our nation’s waters,” Silva said. “We have a responsibility under the law to protect water quality and safeguard the people who rely on clean water.”

EPA has used this Clean Water Act authority in just 12 circumstances since 1972 and Silva said the agency reserves this authority for only unacceptable cases. None of the previous 12 permit vetoes involved projects that had already been permitted.

Acting Governor Tomblin said, “This news is devastating to the Southern Coal Fields and our entire state. The Spruce Number One permit was issued years ago after undergoing a comprehensive permitting process. It is hard to understand how the EPA at this late hour could take such a drastic action. We will continue with all efforts to get this decision reversed.”

“I believe we can mine coal in an environmentally safe manner and I will continue to fight this decision,” said the governor.

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, the state’s immediate past governor, said, “Today’s EPA decision is not just fundamentally wrong, it is an unprecedented act by the federal government that will cost our state and our nation even more jobs during the worst recession in this country’s history. While the EPA decision hurts West Virginia today, it has negative ramifications for every state in our nation.”

Silva said EPA’s decision to stop mining waste discharges to high quality streams at the Spruce No. 1 mine was based on several major environmental and water quality concerns.

The proposed mine project would have:

  • Buried more than six miles of high-quality streams in Logan County, West Virginia with millions of tons of mining waste from the dynamiting of more than 2,200 acres of mountains and forestlands.
  • Buried more than 35,000 feet of high-quality streams under mining waste, eliminating all wildlife.
  • Polluted downstream waters as a result of burying these streams, leading to unhealthy levels of salinity and toxic levels of selenium that turn fresh water into salty water. The resulting waste that then fills valleys and streams can significantly compromise water quality, often causing permanent damage to ecosystems and streams.
  • Caused downstream watershed degradation that will kill wildlife, impact birdlife, reduce habitat value, and increase susceptibility to toxic algal blooms.
  • Inadequately mitigated for the mine’s environmental impacts by not replacing streams being buried, and attempting to use stormwater ditches as compensation for natural stream losses.

Additionally, the agency said, during the permitting process there was a failure to consider cumulative watershed degradation resulting from past, present, and future mining in the area.

Finally, EPA’s decision prohibits five proposed valley fills in two streams, Pigeonroost Branch, and Oldhouse Branch, and their tributaries.

Mining activities at the Spruce site are underway in Seng Camp Creek as a result of a prior agreement reached in the active litigation with the Mingo Logan Coal Company. EPA’s Final Determination does not affect current mining in Seng Camp Creek.

Joe Lovett, director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, said, “It is a relief after all of these years that at least one agency has shown the will to follow the law and the science by stopping the destruction of Pigeonroost Hollow and Oldhouse Branch.”

“Unfortunately, the Spruce Mine’s impacts are not unique,” Lovett said. “Although we are grateful for the EPA’s action today, EPA must follow through by vetoing the scores of other Corps permits that violate the Clean Water Act and that would allow mountaintop mines to lay waste to our mountains and streams.”

The nonprofit Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition said, “Spruce No. 1 is the only individual permit to have undergone a full Environmental Impact Statement. 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. This type of steep slope coal mining is destroying our cultural heritage and our future.”

Mountaintop removal mining operations use explosives to blast off the tops of mountains to reach the coal seams beneath. Millions of tons of waste rock, dirt, and vegetation are pushed into surrounding valleys, burying miles of streams.

For previous ENS coverage of this permitting issue see: EPA Proposes Veto of West Virgina’s Largest Mountaintop Removal Mine

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.

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