WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday proposed to halt the largest mountaintop mine in Central Appalachia, saying the project would pollute drinking water and harm wildlife in mountain streams, and that the damage to the mountains would be irreversible.
Despite the strong language, however, the EPA's action only begins another lengthy process about the controversial mine. In the end, the agency could prohibit the mine altogether or allow it to continue with restrictions.
The EPA found that mining the coal at Spruce No. 1 in Logan County, West Virginia, would fill six valleys, bury more than seven miles of streams, destroy 2,278 acres of forest and pollute water in adjacent streams.
The proposed veto of the mine's permit is a rare step in three decades of mountaintop mining in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia. This is the first time the EPA has proposed to veto a mine that already had received a permit. It's the 12th time it used the veto power for any project since the Clean Water Act of 1972 became law.
In January, the EPA approved a permit for another mountaintop mine in West Virginia, Hobet 45.
Mountaintop mining requires blasting hundreds of feet off the tops of mountains to expose coal. The mining has destroyed roughly 2,040 square miles of land in Appalachia — or twice the size of Rhode Island — and buried more than 2,000 miles of streams, the EPA has said.
The EPA in a statement said it proposed to veto the Spruce No. 1 mine because it would pollute drinking water and threaten fish and other wildlife that depend on the streams that would be buried by mining debris. It also said that the ditches the mining company would dig to drain storm water off the mine would not compensate for the loss of natural streams, but instead would drain contaminated water into adjacent streams.
The region where Spruce No. 1 is located in southern West Virginia's Coal River basin already has many mountaintop mines.
"Landscape and site specific assessments reveal that past and current mountaintop mining has caused substantial, irreplaceable loss of resources and an irreversible effect on these resources within the Coal River basin," the EPA's statement said.
The EPA had been trying to work out a less damaging mining plan with the mine's operator, Mingo Logan Mining Co., a subsidiary of Arch Coal.
The EPA tried to "foster dialogue and find a responsible path forward" because "coal, and coal mining, is part of our nation's energy future," said EPA regional administrator Shawn Garvin.
The veto recommendation, Garvin said, "is consistent with our broader Clean Water Act efforts in Central Appalachia. EPA has a duty under the law to protect water quality and safeguard the people who rely on these waters for drinking, fishing and swimming."
Arch Coal said in a statement that it was looking into its legal options to fight the EPA's decision. It said it planned to "vigorously defend the Spruce permit by all legal means."
Ed Hopkins, the Sierra Club's director of environmental quality, said in a statement: "It is good to see the EPA applying more scientifically rigorous analysis to these permits. The best available science tells us that proposed mines like the massive Spruce Mine would pollute waterways, destroy mountains and devastate communities. We hope that the agency follows through on this recommendation."
In the summary section of its proposal document on the Spruce No. 1 mine, the EPA said: "Applying the lessons of the past, we now know that failure to control mining practices has resulted in persistent environmental degradation in the form of acid mine drainage and other impacts that cost billions to remedy. . . . Recent studies and evidence point to new environmental and health challenges that were largely unconsidered until more recently."
The Department of the Interior, meanwhile, has said it plans to restore a rule, repealed in 2009 in the final days of the Bush administration, which required a 100-foot buffer around streams. Interior plans to propose a new rule in 2011 and finalize it in mid-2012. Environmental groups say they hope the new rule will prevent dumping rubble from mountaintop mines into streams and will be enforced.
Earthjustice, an environmental law firm, announced on Monday it was putting a hold on its lawsuit challenging the Bush administration repeal of the rule. It said it would decide whether to resume the legal fight after the Department of Interior puts out its proposed new rule.
The stream-buffer rule was never enforced, said Joan Mulhern, an Earthjustice attorney. "The Interior Department, under Republican and Democratic administrations, has promoted increased coal production, more mechanization, fewer jobs and more poverty and environmental destruction."
Currently, about half of all U.S.-produced electricity comes from burning coal. These power plant emissions are a major source of the heat-trapping gases that cause global warming. The Sierra Club estimates that mountaintop coal is used to produce just five percent of the nation's electricity. The EPA has no comparable estimate.
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