By Jamie Goodman
On January 13, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a veto of the largest proposed mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history. Arch Coal’s “Spruce Mine #1” permit would have impacted more than 2,000 acres and buried more than eight miles of streams in Logan County, W.Va.
“The proposed Spruce No. 1 Mine would use destructive and unsustainable mining practices that jeopardize the health of Appalachian communities and clean water on which they depend,” said EPA’s Peter Silva.
Historically, the EPA has been slow to reach for its veto pen. The decision on the Spruce mine permit was only the thirteenth such veto the EPA has used under section 404 of the Clean Water Act, and the first time ever on a water permit associated with an Appalachian surface mine.
The EPA offered an alternative proposal to Arch Coal that would have lessened the aquatic impacts of the Spruce mine from eight miles to three miles of streams, for a cost of around fifty-five cents per ton of coal. However, EPA officials said that Arch Coal walked away from negotiations.
Citizen groups in Appalachia were generally pleased with the EPA’s veto of this mountaintop removal permit. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., speaking with Appalachian Voices, called Lisa Jackson “the most courageous EPA Administrator this country has ever had.”
The groups said that if the EPA was going to be consistent, they needed to continue to deny mountaintop removal permits that were using valley fills.
“The EPA’s action is the kind of bold step we need to ensure the health of our communities and safety of our natural heritage,” said Ann League of Tennessee’s Statewide Organizing for Community Empowerment.
“[W]e need permanent, enforceable action to end mountaintop removal, end destruction of our mountains and waterways, and to protect the Appalachian people, once and for all,” said Sam Broch, Virginia resident and member of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards.
The coal industry and its allies opposed the veto, particularly the fact that the EPA could veto the permit after the Army Corps of Engineers had already signed off on it.
Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) plans to make it his first act as senator to introduce legislation to remove the EPA’s ability to veto Clean Water Act permits. In a letter to his colleagues, he said, “While it is not unusual for the EPA to object to a coal mine permit, this particular decision is shocking in that the EPA, for the first time in more than three decades, has “vetoed” a coal mine permit that had been thoroughly reviewed by the EPA and other regulators, awarded by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and put into action by the mining company.”
Congressman Nick Rahall (D-WV) added, “The good news, if there is any, may be that by EPA’s finalizing this threatened action, the matter can now be taken before the courts, where I hope it will receive a thorough hearing and expeditious reversal.”
Duke Energy and Progress Energy announced they will merge at the end of 2011 to become the largest electric utility in the country, serving more than 7 million customers; half of the combined electricity generation will be provided by coal, including new power plants under construction in North Carolina and Indiana.
Groups of the newly formed Water Advocacy Council, including the United Egg Producers, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Mining Association, recently asked Council on Environmental Quality chair Nancy Sutley to oppose the EPA’s veto of the Spruce No. 1 surface mine’s Section 404 permit, stating that the decision to revoke a previously authorized permit could have implications on all previously authorized 404 permits, including those for agriculture, home building and transportation. Journalists such as the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward were quick to point out that EPA never actually gave final sign-off to the Spruce Permit, and that the agency has been sparing in using its veto authority. The Spruce Mine veto is only the thirteenth in thirty-nine years, and the first ever of an Appalachian strip-mine permit.
According to a report by The Brattle Group, “emerging EPA regulations on air and water quality for coal-fired power plants could result in over 50,000 MW of coal plant retirements and require $180 billion for remaining plants to comply with likely mandates.” The report also says that by 2020, coal plant closures will reduce coal demand by 15 percent and reduce CO2 emissions by 150 million tons. Coal consumption has lowered more than 10% in the past several years, now supplying only 44% of the country’s total electricity needs (as of October 2010).
In June of this year, the Mine Safety and Health Administration will issue a final rule for rock dust requirements, replacing emergency temporary standards put in place last September after the Upper Big Branch mine disaster; MSHA investigators believe that an inadequate layer of rock dust—used to control highly explosive coal dust—may have contributed to the intensity of the explosion that killed 29 miners. In March, 2011, the Mining Safety Health Association will start requiring mine operators to install proximity detection devices on mobile equipment, to prevent pinning and crushing accidents in underground mines. Since 1983, 31 miners have been killed in accidents involving remote controlled continuous mining machines.
A recent New York Times article reported that, although developed countries are closing coal-fired power plants or limiting the use of coal over pollution and climate change concerns, the market demand in Asia, and particularly China, is expanding at a rapid pace. Demand from Asia has helped double the price of coal over the past five years, creating what the Sierra Club calls a “worse-case scenario” in the push to reduce carbon emissions.