EPA Vetoes Mountaintop Removal Coal Mine

  • Published on January 13th, 2011

It’s official. After 13 years of negotiations, studies, and court battles, the Environmental Protection Agency is protecting the environment by telling Arch Coal Company that its Spruce No 1 “mountaintop removal” coal mine is terminally bad for the environment. As such, the agency is vetoing it.

  • The mine would have been the largest ever, and would have left 2,278 acres of forest looking like a desolate moonscape.
  • The mine would removed an entire mountaintop and dump 110 million cubic yards of coal-mining waste into seven miles of headwater streams, burying all wildlife.
  • Toxic effluent from the operation would have entered the water table, streams and rivers, flowing downstream and affecting the water supply for both wildlife AND people (the Ohio River is downstream of the proposed mine, which provides drinking water for millions).
  • The damage would be “irreversible”.

This is only the 12th time in 39 years the EPA has blocked a mine under provisions of the Clean Water Act. During the Bush years, mines were allowed to dump into stream beds and riverbeds without regard to the environmental consequences. But the EPA announced in 2009 that it was going to actually enforce the Clean Water Act. Finally.

This is only the second time the EPA had revoked a license that had already been issued.

Image from Mountain Justice
Image from Mountain Justice

The Sierra Club was jubilant. “In sharp contrast to the previous administration’s policies on mountaintop removal coal mining, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson is showing a strong commitment to the law, the science and the principles of environmental justice,” Sierra Club Environmental Quality Program Director Ed Hopkins said. “She deserves enormous credit for changing policies to protect Appalachia’s health, land and water.”

Jon Devine, a senior attorney in the Water Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council:

“In the face of the political and industry forces pressuring EPA to ignore the damage this mine would cause, it took guts for the agency to follow the science and the law.

“EPA’s action means Appalachians dealing with the devastating damage from radical coal mining can breathe a sigh of relief. The agency made the right decision to prevent the destruction that would have been caused by this enormous mountaintop-to-moonscape project.”

Backers of big coal were outraged, naturally. And Acting Governor Earl Ray Tomblin vowed to continue the state’s court fight, to block the EPA from blocking the mine.

Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-VA) wrote to President Obama:

“I am writing to express my outrage with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) decision to veto a rigorously reviewed and lawfully issued permit at the Spruce Number 1 Mine in Logan County, West Virginia. This action not only affects this specific permit, but needlessly throws other permits into a sea of uncertainty at a time of great economic distress.”

And Representative Shelly Moore Capito (R-WV) was equally blunt:

“This action is hard evidence of the EPA’s anti-coal agenda, as well as their intent to use their regulatory authority to dismantle the coal industry,” she said in a statement Thursday. “What’s more, this veto puts all previously issued permits at risk, casting a wide veil of uncertainly over not just coal, but any industry subject to 404 permits.”

“The history of EPA’s use of our…authority demonstrates clearly that permits are not vulnerable to being revoked,” an EPA spokeswoman told the Wall Street Journal. “The Corps authorizes approximately 100,000 projects in the nation’s waters every year, which translates to millions of permits during the past 39 years” of the Clean Water Act.

In earlier times, Logan County was one battlefield in the “Coal Wars” between greedy mining companies and unions trying to get a fair shake for the workers who actually dug the coal that made the profits. Workers have always been a nuisance to the mining companies, which is one reason there are so many mountaintop removal mines today: They don’t need as many workers. Huge machines do most of the actual stripping and digging. The Arch Company’s own numbers tell the tale: this was a $250 million project, but it would have only created 250 jobs.

Keep that in mind as big coal’s allies call this a “job-killer” – most of the mining jobs have already been killed, and it wasn’t by environmentalists.

(Image from Mountain Justice; aerial view of Logan County from Google)

About the Author

Jeremy Bloom is the Editor of RedGreenAndBlue. He lives in New York, where he combines his passion for the environment with his passion for film, and is working on making the world a better place.