WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday blocked what would have been one of the largest mountaintop coal mines in Appalachia, saying it would have caused irreversible damage to nearby streams.
The EPA said it based its final decision to veto a previously granted permit for the Spruce No. 1 mine on the pollution that would have destroyed wildlife, polluted areas downstream and increased the water contamination risks for people who live in West Virginia's already heavily mined Coal River basin. The streams the veto protects — Pigeonroost Branch and Oldhouse Branch — are two of the last "high-quality" streams in the watershed, the agency said.
Environmentalists claimed a major victory and said they hope it's the beginning of the end for mountaintop mining under new scrutiny by the Obama administration. The EPA, however, said in a statement that it thinks coal companies can design mountaintop mines that comply with the Clean Water Act.
The agency said the circumstances of the Spruce No. 1 mine set it apart.
The proposed mine "would use destructive and unsustainable mining practices that jeopardize the health of Appalachian communities and clean water on which they depend," said Peter S. Silva, the EPA's assistant administrator for water.
The EPA asked the mining company, Mingo Logan Coal Co., a subsidiary of Arch Coal Inc., to submit a new plan to show how it would reduce impacts. The EPA and the company discussed the mine for more than a year, but in the end the company didn't produce a plan that would significantly decrease environmental harm, the EPA said in a statement announcing its decision.
The proposed mine would have leveled 3.5 square miles of mountain forests and dumped millions of tons of mine waste into valleys, burying 6.6 miles of streams.
The EPA said that everything that lives in the streams would have been killed by the debris, and downstream waters would have been polluted with "unhealthy levels of salinity and toxic levels of selenium." The waters also would contain other "dissolved solids" related to coal mining.
Pollution downstream would kill aquatic wildlife, harm birds, reduce the value of the habitat and make toxic algal blooms more likely.
The mine rubble often makes streams in the watershed so polluted that they become unfit for swimming, fishing or drinking.
The EPA also said that the mining company didn't consider the "cumulative watershed degradation resulting from past, present and future mining in the area."
The EPA said the company would have replaced natural streams with storm water ditches.
In a statement, the EPA said it isn't considering any other vetoes of previously permitted surface mines.
The agency's decision prohibits dumping debris in five valleys cut by the Pigeonroost and Oldhouse branches and their tributaries. However, mining activities at the Spruce site in the Seng Camp Creek area are already under way and will be allowed to continue as the result of a prior legal settlement.
Mountaintop removal mining has buried an estimated 2,000 miles of headwater streams and leveled more than 2,000 square miles of land in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky.
Arch Coal will contest the decision by amending a case already under way in U.S. District Court in Washington, said company spokeswoman Kim Link. She said the mine would have employed 250 people.
Arch Coal in a statement that the decision would have a "chilling effect" because of companies will "fear similar overreaching by the EPA."
Joan Mulhern, an attorney with the environmental law firm Earthjustice, said the Spruce mine veto was "a true victory for the communities nearby, and for all Americans across the country who are fighting to protect our precious natural resources from industrial pollution.
"We hope this veto will be the beginning of the end of the devastating practice of mountaintop removal mining."
EPA during the Obama administration has approved other mountaintop mines that took steps to reduce their pollution and stream burial.
Last April, the agency announced it would no longer grant permits if streams show unacceptable levels of conductivity, a measure of salt that indicates water pollution from mining practices. The National Mining Association challenged the policy in court.
The EPA granted the permit under the Clean Water Act in 2007. This is only the 13th time the EPA has vetoed a permit since the clean water law went into effect in 1972.
West Virginia's two senators, both Democrats, said they'd fight the veto. Jay Rockefeller said he was "deeply angered" because the mine "always made good faith efforts to comply with the applicable laws and regulations." Joe Manchin said the veto "jeopardizes our economic recovery and jobs."
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