The ongoing controversy over mountaintop removal mining see-sawed this spring, as the Obama administration stopped seven high-impact mining permits but then proceeded forward with 42 others. Perhaps 150 more are waiting in the wings, according to an EPA spokesman.
One of the projects halted was an expanded mountaintop removal mining operation at the Ison Rock Ridge mine in Wise County.
The mine owners had proposed expanding Ison Rock Ridge by 1,300 acres, but the permit was suspended because of concerns about impacts on the Powell River and, according to the Corps of Engineers, because proper state permits were not secured.
The mine would have destroyed three miles of streams and filled nine valleys with more than 11 million cubic yards of rock and dirt. Environmental impacts were not accounted for in the Ison Rock permit applications, the Corps of Engineers said.
“Its great to see that all our work is paying off,” said Pete Ramey, retired coal miner and president of the group Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS). “We’ve spent so much time and energy as a community on Ison Rock Ridge over the last two years, building this struggle and getting our neighbors involved. This really and truly is a great victory for the people and streams of Southwest Virginia.”
Six other projects were suspended in mid-May by the Environmental Protection Agency, which is reviewing Corps of Engineers permits.
An announcement that EPA was starting the review process in March triggered some optimism that all mountaintop removal mining permits would end, but political concerns about employment in the region led EPA to approve 42 of 48 permits under active consideration.
The external controversy was mirrored inside the Obama administration. At one meeting, two cabinet secretaries got into a dispute, pounding their fists on the table in disagreement, according to one news report.
Just how many of the overall 200 or so permits will be approved is an open question. “Of the ones reviewed so far, roughly 90% have been permitted,” said Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va) in a congressional hearing. Perriello asked whether that would be the percentage for the remaining permits.
“We’re not shooting for a specific percentage,” said EPA assistant secretary Mike Shapiro. “We’re really shooting to identify those that are seriously problematic and to try and address them.”
Activists believe the main hope for stopping mountaintop removal mining continues to be through Congressional action.
“The bottom line is that we have got to pass the Clean Water Protection Act and the Appalachia Restoration Act,” said J.W. Randolph, legislative associate for Appalachian Voices.