Yesterday, the EPA released a new water quality guidance to reduce the environmental and public health impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. This guidance essentially defines the process through which the EPA will evaluate valley fill permit applications, minimize impacts on streams, enforce water pollution guidelines, and use its authority to veto permits. This guidance was first issued in draft form in April 2010; prior to that time, even though the EPA had the authority to intervene in valley fill permit applications, it never did so.
While this guidance does represent stricter EPA oversight over valley fills and could reduce the number and size of valley fills, it will not stop strip mining or even mountaintop removal mining. According to the EPA’s press release announcing the release of the guidance, the guidance will allow the EPA “to work together with states, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, mining companies, and the public towards a balanced approach that protects communities from harmful pollution associated with coal mining. EPA will apply the guidance flexibly, taking into account site-specific information and additional science to arrive at the best decisions on a case-by-case basis.”
The history of revisions to the Bee Tree surface mine, where the tree sit is occurring, shows both how stricter EPA oversight is changing mining practices and also how companies can continue strip mining without valley fills. When the Bee Tree Surface mine permit was first issued there were 6 proposed valley fills. Because of stricter regulations surrounding valley fill permits, Massey changed their mining plan in November 2009 to eliminate one of their proposed valley fills and instead used their waste material to fill in areas that had previously been highwall mined. Just last month, they again revised their mining plan to eliminate another valley fill – in this case, they plan to backfill a portion of the Brushy Fork Impoundment with their mining debris. At this point in time, at least 200 acres of the 800 acre permit can be mined without a valley fill permit. In other words, even though stricter regulation has discouraged Massey (now Alpha) from applying for valley fill permits, they are continuing to strip mine the mountain.
Though this action from the EPA is a step in the right direction, we share the treesitters urgency – strip mining must be ended now. The new EPA guidelines are not doing enough to protect communities from the severe health impacts mountaintop removal mining causes, including elevated cancer rates and birth defects.