Appalachian Voices testifies before Senate panel on coal-mining rule

Matt Wasson, Program Director, 828-773-0799,
Cat McCue, Communications Director, 434-293-6373,

Appalachian Voices Director of Programs Matt Wasson, Ph.D., is testifying tomorrow morning before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works at a hearing on the implications and environmental impacts of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s draft Stream Protection Rule. (NOTE: We will add a link here for live-streaming video when it becomes available from the committee.)

The rule, expected to be finalized before the end of the Obama administration, is intended to prevent or minimize the impacts of surface coal mining on surface water and groundwater. It has become a flashpoint for the coal industry and its political allies who charge it will harm the industry, but in his testimony, Wasson disputes that charge and highlights the clear need for a strong rule.

Drawing on a wealth of scientific data, and directly citing comments made by citizens in Central Appalachia who wrote to the agency or spoke at one of the public hearings on the rule in September 2015, Wasson highlights five areas of particular concern arising from an under-regulated and at times unlawful coal industry: threats to human health, damage to streams and wildlife, and the need for proper bonding requirements, citizen enforcement, and economic diversification throughout the region.

The Stream Protection Rule would update a 1983 rule, which has failed to protect the health of Central Appalachian streams, wildlife and communities, according to Wasson. More than 2,000 miles of streams have been obliterated, and virtually all stream “restoration” projects have failed to produce healthy aquatic habitat. Life expectancy in Appalachian counties with the most strip mining declined between 1997 and 2007, even as it rose in the U.S. as a whole. Central Appalachian counties where mountaintop removal occurs have among the highest poverty rates in the country.

In his testimony, Wasson debunks a recent study by the National Mining Association predicting the Stream Protection Rule would lead to job losses. The study is predicated on an unreliable methodology and unrealistic projections for coal production, and it fails to assess benefits resulting from the rule, such as safety and health improvements in communities.

Wasson concludes that while the draft Stream Protection Rule is far from perfect, it does represent an “honest effort to improve upon three decades of poor regulation that has allowed mountaintop removal coal mining to endanger Appalachian communities and devastate wildlife and aquatic ecosystems.”

>> Key excerpts from Wasson’s testimony, available here in its entirety, including direct quotes from Central Appalachian citizens.

Appalachian Voices believes the proposed rule represents, at best, two steps forward and one step back. But any discussion of the “Implications and environmental impacts of the Office of Surface Mining’s proposed Stream Protection Rule” needs to start with one basic fact: the permitting and enforcement regime that has been in effect since 1983 is not working, and indeed has never worked to protect the health of streams, communities and wildlife in Central Appalachia.

What is so notable about the science linking mountaintop removal to elevated death rates and poor health outcomes is not the strength of any individual study, but rather the enormous quantity of data from independent sources that all point toward dramatic increases in rates of disease and decreases in life expectancy and physical well-being. … Life expectancy for both men and women actually declined between 1997 and 2007 in Appalachian counties with the most strip mining, even as life expectancy in the U.S. as a whole increased by more than a year. In 2007, life expectancy in the five Appalachian counties with the most strip mining was comparable to that in developing countries like Iran, Syria, El Salvador and Vietnam.

Our concern is that this rule is overly reliant on mitigation measures like stream replacement that have been shown to almost always fail to restore stream function. For instance, researchers at the University of Maryland published a peer-reviewed study in 2014 that synthesized information from 434 stream mitigation projects from 117 permits for surface mining in Appalachia. The study evaluated the success of both stream restoration and stream creation projects and concluded that “the data show that mitigation efforts being implemented in southern Appalachia for coal mining are not meeting the objectives of the Clean Water Act to replace lost or degraded streams ecosystems and their functions.” Astoundingly, the study found that, “97% of the projects reported suboptimal or marginal habitat even after 5 years of monitoring.”

The Stream Protection Rule could help to address agency inaction, and improve the relationship between Central Appalachian residents and the agencies that are supposed to be serving those communities, but several additional improvements to the SPR are necessary. The SPR should clarify that coal mining operations must comply with water quality standards and that these standards are directly enforceable under SMCRA. Furthermore, the SPR should clarify that citizens can enforce this requirement. Citizen enforcement of the CWA has been crucial to protecting public water from coal mining pollution in Central Appalachia. That ability should be strengthened.

As many local citizens who testified in support of the SPR have said, protecting the communities and the natural assets of the region is an integral part of making a successful economic transition. … Protecting those natural assets begins with reining in (and ideally eliminating altogether) mountaintop removal coal mining, which is associated just as strongly with poor socioeconomic conditions in communities near where mines operate as it is with reduced life expectancy and poor health.