The EPA took a major new step towards ending the environmentally destructive practice of Mountaintop Removal Mining today.
New guidance standards, effective today for new and pending surface mining permits in Appalachia, will mean that the practice of filling in valleys with mountaintops will probably not be permitted unless they meet a high standard, according to Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson.
“Either no or very few valley fills are going to meet standards like this,” Jackson said in a press conference today. “If we keep doing what we have been doing we’re going to see increasing degradation of water quality.”
The new EPA standard involves a general measure of water health called conductivity, or specifically, the ability of water to pass an electrical current.
Appalachian streams below MTR valley fills typically have a conductivity of 900 microSeimens per centimeter or more, according to Donna Lisenby, Waterkeeper for the Wautauga River.
The EPA standard sets conductivity below 500, with 300 to 500 in the suspect range, Jackson said. This is the first time a numeric standards have been used to measure stream health, she said.
“The intent here is to tell people what the science is telling us,” Jackson said. “It would be untrue to say that you can have numbers of valley fills, anything more than very minimal valley fills, and not expect to see irreversible damage to stream health. And that’s just the truth. That’s what we’ve learned, and the beauty of this is that it’s entirely based on what we believe the science is telling us.”
Existing operations will not be canceled, Jackson said, but 79 major surface mining permits now undergoing review would have to comply with the new standard.
Other scientific standards, such as selenium contamination, may also be a factor in future EPA consideration of permits for valley fills, but the advantage of the conductivity standard is that a test can be done on site and it can provide instant results.
Questioned about the somewhat technical issue of how closely such measurements would be taken, Jackson said the point of the tests is to measure how much contamination is entering a stream, and that would mean testing as close to the source as possible.
Environmental groups reacted with applause today, while mining companies threatened more job losses.
“Appalachia thanks Lisa Jackson and the EPA for taking the impacts on human health and environmental justice into consideration when issuing permits,” said Judy Bonds of Coal River Mountain Watch in West Virginia.
The National Mining Association objected, called the new standard “a sweeping regulatory action that affects not only all coal mining in the region, but also other activities.”
Anticipating the mining industry’s reaction, Jackson said:
“This is not about ending coal mining – this is about ending coal mining pollution.”
“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. “
Legislation to further curb MTR mining and protect Appalachian communities, the Clean Water Protection Act, is still needed, said Lenny Kohm with Appalachian Voices. The bills are pending in the US House and Senate.
For more on the EPA’s action today see: