EPA Issues Water Quality Guidance For Mountaintop Removal Mining

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Thursday issued a new set of guidelines that could be a turning point in protecting Appalachian waterways from the damages caused by mountaintop removal coal mining.

Mountaintop removal is a form of surface coal mining in which explosives are used to access coal seams, generating large volumes of waste that bury adjacent streams. The resulting waste that then fills valleys and streams can significantly compromise water quality, often causing permanent damage to ecosystems and rendering streams unfit for swimming, fishing and drinking. It is estimated that almost 2,000 miles of Appalachian headwater streams have been buried by mountaintop coal mining.

The new guidance–effective immediately on an interim basis–sets a water quality range on conductivity (a measure of the level of salt in the water) of 300 to 500 microSiemens per centimeter. The maximum benchmark conductivity of 500 microSiemens per centimeter is a measure of salinity that is roughly five times above normal levels. The conductivity levels identified in the clarifying guidance are intended to protect 95% of aquatic life and fresh water streams in central Appalachia, EPA said.

"The people of Appalachia shouldn’t have to choose between a clean,
healthy environment in which to raise their families and the jobs they
need to support them. That’s why EPA is providing even greater clarity
on the direction the agency is taking to confront pollution from
mountain top removal,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson.

The Obama administration has been criticized over the last year for not taking a tough stance against mountaintop removal coal mining. But in recent weeks, the EPA has indicated it may be prepared to significantly tighten regulation on the practice. Last week the Agency said it may veto a permit for the largest mining project, which is located in West Virginia.

Environmental groups praised the new action. "This guidance follows the dictates of the Clean Water Act and lays the foundation for protecting Appalachia. It is a matter of basic fairness and common sense that coal companies which pollute our waters and violate the Clean Water Act should not get Clean Water Act permits," Trip Van Noppen of EarthJustice said in a release. "We commend Administrator Jackson and the EPA for recognizing that the people of coal communities deserve the full protection of our clean water laws, and we’re glad to see that EPA is back on the job."

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement: "These new guidelines will reduce the destruction caused by mountaintop removal, and communities will be able to focus on building a clean energy economy."

EPA aslo released two scientific reports prepared by its Office of Research and Development (ORD). One summarizes the aquatic impacts of mountaintop mining and valley fills. The second establishes the scientific benchmark for unacceptable levels of conductivity.

EPA will decide whether to modify the guidance after consideration of public comments and the results of the SAB technical review of the scientific reports.

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