June 11, 2009
Obama Administration Moves to Slow Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining, Promises Tougher Enforcement
Actor Ashley Judd Helps Sierra Club Launch "What's at Stake" Web site to Highlight Communities and Streams Still at Risk in Appalachia
Washington, D.C. Today the Obama Administration announced steps to end the fast-tracking of certain mountaintop removal coal mine permits and to add tougher enforcement in Appalachia, important steps that with additional actions could greatly reduce the devastation to communities, waterways and mountains. However, these new policies alone will not improve conditions in Appalachia unless the administration uses its authority to enact federal regulations to end mountaintop removal as hundreds of mountains and communities remain at risk.
To highlight the communities and natural areas still at risk in Appalachia, and to allow the public to track and comment on mountaintop removal coal mining permits, the Sierra Club today launched the "What's at Stake" Web site, with help from actor Ashley Judd. http://action.sierraclub.org/WhatsAtStake
"While we are encouraged to see the Obama administration taking additional steps to increase scrutiny of mountaintop removal coal mining, the only way to end the devastation in Appalachia is to quickly reverse the Bush administration's rule making it legal to fill streams with mining waste," said Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope. "The true test of these new policies and of President Obama's legacy on this issue will be whether they change the terrible situation on the ground in Appalachia."
After a West Virginia court ruled against it recently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers today proposed to revoke the nationwide "one-size-fits-all" permit it had used to authorize the dumping of coal mining waste into hundreds of miles of Appalachian headwater streams. At the same time, however, the Obama administration fell short of conclusively protecting additional streams and communities from devastation.
"The Army Corps’ revocation proposal is an admission that its longstanding permitting practices are scientifically and legally indefensible," said Jim Hecker, Environmental Enforcement Director at Public Justice in Washington, DC. "This permit should never have been issued, because it was based on the Army Corps’ unsupportable assumption that filling these streams has minimal environmental effects."
The Clean Water Act only authorizes nationwide permits for stream-filling activities that have minimal environmental effects, both individually and cumulatively. Mountaintop removal coal mining produces enormous quantities of waste that is commonly disposed of in adjacent valleys and streams. Scientific studies have shown that the waters downstream from valley fills are degraded, and there is no scientific evidence that buried headwater streams can be re-created successfully elsewhere.
Judith Petersen, executive director of Kentucky Waterways Alliance, called today's announcement mixed. "By moving to end the Nationwide Permit, the administration is making it harder for coal companies to bury streams and promising tougher enforcement. But we believe that if fully enforced, the Clean Water Act would prohibit filling streams with mining waste, making mountaintop removal coal mining nearly impossible."
"The Corps has now recognized that valley fills are so damaging that it can only use individual permits, not nationwides. But the Obama administration clearly intends to continue issuing mountaintop removal permits under policies created during the Bush administration. While we welcome the change in the nationwide permits, this does not represent a significant change in policy on mountaintop removal," said Joe Lovett, Executive Director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment.
"This is a necessary but inadequate action by the Obama administration," said Vernon Haltom, co-director at Coal River Mountain Watch. "Without a significant change in policy, mining companies will continue to destroy our mountains and bury our streams on the Obama administration’s watch. They need to put a stop to this, and they’re not doing so."