News Analysis: EPA Halts Proposed Mountaintop Mine

After 12 years of wrangling over a water permit needed to operate one of the largest mountaintop mines in Appalachia, the US EPA has vetoed the permit. Mine operators, politicians and environmentalists have had strong reactions to the agency's move. So have other industries. The Allegheny Front's news analyst Ann Murray joins host Jennifer Szweda Jordan to talk about the agency's veto and the aftermath of EPA's decision to halt Spruce Mine Number One.

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OPEN: After 12 years of wrangling over a water permit needed to operate one of the largest mountaintop mines in Appalachia, the US EPA has vetoed the permit. Mine operators, politicians and environmentalists have had strong reactions to the agency's move. So have other industries. The Allegheny Front's news analyst Ann Murray is here to talk about the agency's veto and the aftermath of EPA's decision to halt Spruce Mine Number One.

JORDAN: EPA vetoed a permit to dump mining waste in streams at Spruce Mine in southern West Virginia. Why is Arch Coal, operator of the mine, crying foul?

MURRAY: Because EPA revoked an existing permit.

JORDAN: How can the agency do this retroactively?

MURRAY: The agency used its authority under the Clean Water Act. EPA says this is only the 13th time it has vetoed a permit and that it reserves that power "for only unacceptable cases."

JORDAN: Why was the permit granted in the first place?

MURRAY: It was granted by Army Corps of Engineers under the Bush administration after Arch Coal agreed to modify the size of the area that would be impacted by the mining operation. EPA never signed off on this permit. EPA says that Arch Coal would have used QUOTE ìdestructive and unsustainable mining practices that would have jeopardize the community and the water that the community depends onî.

JORDAN: The traditional site for dumping the waste and rubble from the mine has been adjacent valleys and streams. What did EPA say Arch Coal could have done to protect surface water?

MURRAY: EPA maintains that Arch Coal had the option to minimize the amount of stream coverage by moving the mine debris to other locations that wouldn't have interfered with the health of nearby waterways. But the company chose not to do that.

JORDAN: Because of the cost?

MURRAY: I would have assume it had something to do with the cost but a recent article in The Charleston Gazette says that EPA had proposed an alternate plan that would have been acceptable to the agency and would have cost Arch Coal just 1 percent over their projected production costs. Arch Coal has refused to comment to the media.

JORDAN: How long did EPA work with Arch Coal on modifying their mining plan for Spruce Mine?

MURRAY: More than a year.

JORDAN: And in that year, EPA sought out public comment?

MURRAY: Yes. EPA says they got more than 50,000 comments about this proposed mine. The agency also did an extensive environmental impact study.
JORDAN: What did the agency find in their study of the Spruce Mine operation?

MURRAY: The agency maintains that this mining project would have buried more than six miles of high quality streams with the debris from 2,200 acres of forested mountains. This would have resulted in the loss of aquatic life and possibly impacted fish and other wildlife downstream from the buried streams.

JORDAN: The agency has a new criteria for stream impairment from surface mining operations doesn't it? Did EPA take that into consideration when they vetoed the permit?

MURRAY: Yes,the did. The agency has set up a threshold of stream salinity that canít be exceeded.

JORDAN: How is stream salinity connected to valley fills?

MURRAY: Burying streams with the rocks and debris that are left over when a company blows off the top of a mountain can cause high salinity and toxic levels of selenium in the stream. That can turn fresh water into salty water and often causes permanent damage to ecosystems and streams.

JORDAN: Has the EPA under President Obama come to the conclusion that mountaintop mining should be ended?

MURRAY: When the agency released a statement about vetoing this permit, it was careful to point out that EPA believes coal is part of our energy future in the US and that the agency will work with mountaintop mining companies to come up with viable plans.

JORDAN: Why have companies outside of mining been so vocal about EPA's decision to rescind this permit?

MURRAY: Realty companies, construction companies and the state of West Virginia are planning to sue EPA because they say the agency has created an unstable business climate. They complain that they can't depend on EPA to not veto water quality permits issued by the Army Corps of Engineers. Politicians from coal states are also upset. Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia just had his first town meeting and EPA's decision was front and center.

JORDAN: So we haven't heard the last of this decision?

MURRAY: Oh, no. It will be contested in the courts.

JORDAN: Thanks, Ann.

MURRAY: My pleasure.