Hundreds of miles of Appalachian streams are at stake that could be buried with pollutant-laden debris if pending mining permits are approved. This represents a tough choice for the Obama administration, which is being pressured to deliver environmental protections while not hurting the coal industry. Coal is an important economic product in the Appalachian states, particularly during the current deepening recession. Of course, some environmentalists want to close down the coal industry altogether, even though coal generates more than half the country’s electricity. In fact, America is the Saudi Arabia of coal.
ACE's Louisville district approved a 1.5-square-mile expansion of a mountaintop mine in Southeast Kentucky with no input from the EPA. The expansion of the International Coal Group’s Thunder Ridge mine allows the company to fill four valleys with debris, burying nearly two miles of streams that drain into the Middle Fork of the Kentucky River. That river supplies drinking water to more than 700,000 people — roughly one-sixth of the state’s population. The permit approval, according to many environmentalists, directly contradicts the EPA’s vow to play a larger role in the permit process. Under the Clean Water Act, the Corps handles most permit decisions, but the EPA can step in to delay pending permits — or veto those already approved — if the agency has reason to believe the disposal sites will harm water supplies or ecosystems.
The controversy involves mountaintop mining, a process in which companies blast the tops off of mountains to reach the coal seams, creating moonscapes in old Appalachian Mountains. The process produces large quantities of debris, which is disposed by pushing it into adjacent valleys, some of which contain streams. The technique is used in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky because of its efficiency: Companies can retrieve nearly all of the coal within the seam, and they can rely more on explosives and machines than manual labor.
The issue is turning out to be: coal jobs versus water quality. The issue is timely because hundreds of permits have been backlogged awaiting a court ruling on the Corps’ authority to issue permits without more extensive environmental impact studies. Overturning a lower court’s ruling, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in coal-friendly Virginia, found last month that the Corps does have the power to issue mountaintop permits without broader reviews. (The Washington Independent, 3/30/09)