Written by: Dan Radmacher
July 15, 2011
Because it has stepped up enforcement of mountaintop removal permits, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has come under shrill, bipartisan attack in Congress.
At a hearing before the House Oversight Committee this afternoon, Center Executive Director Joe Lovett was one of the few witnesses defending the agency, though he said it should be doing far more to ensure that coal companies follow the law.
In his testimony, Lovett noted that for years, “regulatory agencies have time and again looked the other way while coal operators ignore the law and tear down our mountains.”
The EPA’s recent actions have been necessary to ensure that mining operators and regulatory agencies actually begin to follow the law:
Too often state and federal agencies see their jobs not as enforcing the law and protecting the environment and the communities in the region, but as protecting coal operators from having to comply with the law. Rather than forcing mountaintop removal operators to conform their actions to the law, too many federal and state agencies bend or change the law to accommodate destructive mining practices.
Lovett discussed a 2009 Memorandum of Understanding jointly issued by the EPA, the U.S. Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Interior Department. That MOU recognized the importance of Appalachia: “The mountains of Appalachia possess unique biological diversity, forests, and freshwater streams that historically have sustained rich and vibrant American communities,” while emphasizing the risk from mountaintop removal mining, which “often stresses the natural environment and impacts the health and welfare of surrounding human communities. Streams once used for swimming, fishing, and drinking water have been adversely impacted, and groundwater resources used for drinking water have been contaminated. Some forest lands that sustain water quality and habitat and contribute to the Appalachian way of life have been fragmented or lost.”
That MOU was supposed to lead to interagency cooperation on a plan to reduce the impact of surface mining and ensure that future mining is only done in ways allowed by law. “Unfortunately the Corps appears to be failing again in its duty to enforce the law or protect streams,” Lovett testified. That failure led the EPA to veto the Corps permit for the Spruce No. 1 Mine.
As Lovett noted, “only the U.S. EPA, of the three federal agencies responsible for regulating mining in the region, has taken meaningful action to protect our streams or help local communities avoid the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal mining.” For that, EPA has been subject to relentless attacks from the coal industry and politicians who put the interests of that industry above the welfare of their constituents.
Lovett said EPA has taken three main actions in regard to mountaintop removal: the veto of the Spruce permit, development of an Enhanced Coordination Process with the Corps for the issuance of Clean Water Act permits, and issuing a a guidance document on conductivity levels in Appalachian streams.
“None of these actions should be controversial,” Lovett said. “Taken together, they accomplish only the minimum required by the Clean Water Act. Indeed, EPA should take much more vigorous action to enforce the Act in the region.”
What else should EPA be doing? Lovett said it should promulgate a definition of “fill material” to exclude mining waste, bringing regulations back to where they were before the Bush administration changed the definition to legalize mountaintop removal mining. “Adopting such a regulation would accomplish the goals of the Clean Water Act by assuring our streams may not be used as giant garbage cans for the mining industry’s waste,” Lovett said.
In addition, the EPA should prevent cumulative impacts from mining by prohibiting future mining in watersheds that have already seen significant damage. Finally, EPA should promulgate a numeric water quality standard for conductivity and associated ions and make states regulate discharges from mountaintop removal mines that violate such a standard. Multiple studies show that increased conductivity has a strong correlation with impairment of aquatic life in streams.
Until the EPA takes these steps, Lovett testified, “mountaintop removal operators will continue to violate the Clean Water Act by killing aquatic life in the region’s streams, blowing up mountains and filling streams with mining waste.”
Lovett didn’t limit his focus to the environment. He noted that the adoption of large-scale mountaintop removal mining has helped devastate West Virginia’s fragile economy by allowing coal companies to mine massive amounts of coal with a fraction of the workforce.
So, although coal production today is roughly the same as it was sixty years ago, coal-mining jobs have decreased by approximately 80%. This job loss has been driven not by environmental protection or decreased production, but by coal operators themselves who have replaced workers with machines and explosives. McDowell County, which has produced more coal than any other county in the nation, is now one of the poorest counties in the United States. Far from being an economic asset to communities, mountaintop removal devastates economies wherever it occurs.
Lovett noted that even though production from mountaintop removal mines declined between 2007 and 2010, coal employment actually went up during that same period. “Although mountaintop removal may benefit the bottom lines of big coal operators, it does not increase the number of coal mining jobs.”
Finally, Lovett noted the increasing number of studies demonstrating significant public health impacts from mountaintop removal mining, including studies suggesting an increased risk of birth defects in areas where mountaintop removal mining is conducted, increased risks of low birth weight for babies born in coal mining areas and higher incidences of cancer.
As he did at a hearing about the federal Office of Surface Mining in April, Lovett provided an important counterbalance to a witness panel consisting largely of coal industry defenders. Lovett’s long, first-hand experience with the issue and detailed knowledge of the law and regulations governing mountaintop removal – and, perhaps more importantly, how those laws and regulations have been twisted or ignored by state and federal regulatory agencies – gave his testimony substantial weight and credibility.