Thursday, May 21, 2009
Hundreds of Miles of Streams & Rivers at Risk of Ruin
By Mike Lillis
The Washington Monthly
Despite renewed vows to protect Appalachian waterways from the ravages of mountaintop coal mining, the Environmental Protection Agency has recently authorized a number of pending mountaintop permits that will bury dozens of streams in the nation’s oldest mountain range. The move has left mining supporters cheering the federal endorsement of a popular extraction method, environmentalists wondering if the Obama administration truly intends to prioritize water quality concerns above those of the powerful coal industry, and both sides unsure what to expect of mountaintop permitting in the future.
After reviewing 48 pending Appalachian mining applications in recent weeks, the EPA has rejected just six over concerns that the projects would harm local water supplies. Most of the approved projects, EPA says, are surface mines, including some mountaintop removal projects. Combined, EPA concedes, the operations will fill scores of Appalachian valleys with mining waste — a process that will bury miles (some say hundreds of miles) of seasonal mountain streams with debris and sludge known to carry heavy metals and other toxins likely to wash to communities below. The news has caused many strip-mining opponents to worry that the agency has backtracked on earlier vows to put science and the health of ecosystems at the forefront of its permitting decisions.
“A wave of new mountaintop removal coal mines would represent a leap in the wrong direction,” Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope said in a statement. “With the bulldozers and explosives standing by in Appalachia, the Obama administration should take bold action to protect communities, streams and mountains before it’s too late.”
The process of mountaintop mining occurs when companies blast away the tops of mountains to get at the thin coal seams nestled inside. The unwanted rock and soil is pushed into adjacent valleys, many of which are home to tiny streams — the headwaters of larger bodies of water below. The strategy is popular for its efficiency: Not only does it allow the companies to scrape away more coal, but it also requires fewer workers to get the job done. The process places greater reliance on the productivities of dynamite and heavy machinery. Opponents argue that it comes at too high a price, ruining water supplies and causing flooding that threatens the communities nearby....(Click for remainder.)