News Analysis: EPA Strengthens Permit Guidelines For Mountaintop Mining

The Environmental Protection Agency has issued new guidelines for mountaintop mining permits that take effect immediately. EPA chief Lisa Jackson says the new standard is about ending pollution not ending surface mining in Appalachia but mining companies disagree. The Allegheny Front's news analyst Ann Murray joins host Jennifer Szweda Jordan to talk about EPA's new guidelines and a tandem study that confirms mountaintop removal mining is damaging rivers and forests.

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The Environmental Protection Agency has issued new guidelines for mountaintop mining permits that take effect immediately. EPA chief Lisa Jackson says the new standard is about ending pollution not ending surface mining in Appalachia but mining companies disagree. The Allegheny Front's news analyst Ann Murray joins me to talk about EPA's new guidelines and a tandem study that confirms mountaintop removal mining is damaging rivers and forests.

J: EPA just took actions that will affect surface mine permits. How about a quick summary?

A: EPA says new guidelines will flesh out its responsibilities and how the agency uses its Clean Water Act authorities to make sure that future mining won't cause major water quality and human health impacts. It also released two scientific reports. One summarizes the aquatic impacts of mountaintop mining and valley fills. The second report sets up a scientific benchmark for unacceptable levels of salinity in waterways caused by surface mining. And EPA released information about its permit tracking Web site so that the public can see the status of mining permits.

J. Why did EPA issue these new permitting guidelines?

A. The EPA has had oversight authority over permits that relate to mining's impact on waterways but has challenged only a few permits granted by the US Army Corps of Engineers until last year. The guidance explains more about the approach EPA is following in surface mining permit reviews. The agency says it also provides additional assurance that EPA Regions are using consistent, science-based standards in these reviews.

J. Which states have to follow this guidance?

A. It only applies to Appalachian States, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Officials said the new policy will apply to all new surface mine proposals and some 79 permits now under review.

J. One way EPA says it will now control pollution from dumping mining debris into streams is by limiting high conductivity levels caused by salts and metals in the water. How will the standard be used?

A. This is the first time the agency is setting limits on the electrical conductivity of streams, which can be impacted by surface mining. EPA believes that in-stream conductivity levels below 300 microSiemens per centimeter will protect aquatic life, and levels above 500 have serious water quality impacts. EPA will use these numbers as benchmarks for states and the Army Corps of Engineers to make sure that permits meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act.

J. Will this stop mountaintop mining in Appalachian states?

A. EPA says no and points to recently approved permits for some surface mining projects in Appalachia. The agency says it expects to continue to permit mines when these projects are consistent with the guidance. But EPA chief, Lisa Jackson, admits projects, particularly those with multiple valley fills or large volumes of mining debris, will raise concerns under the guidelines.

J: What can mining companies do to meet the new guidelines?

A: Primarily keep mining debris away from stream beds. If EPA believes that significant environmental impacts may happen based on affected stream length, size of valley fills, or other factors, EPA will recommend to the Corps of Engineers that an Environmental Impact Statement be done.

J: Mine industry representatives have complained that this new guidance is too specifically geared to one industry in one region and that EPA didn't offer the public a chance to comment. How does EPA respond to those complaints?

A: EPA did put the guidelines into immediate effect but says it is submitting the guidance for public review and comment. The agency is publishing a notice in the Federal Register requesting public comment by December of this year. EPA says the agency will consider revisions to the guidance based on comments it gets.

J: Environmental groups have been trying to end mountaintop mining for at least a decade. What do these groups think about EPA's new permit policies?

A: They seem to be very pleased but groups say they're waiting to see how the guidelines will be enforced.

J: How did EPA focus its report about environmental damage caused by mountaintop mining and valley?

A: The report is a review of scientific papers written in the past decade. EPA scientists focused on direct damage to streams that are buried and on pollution downstream from valley fills. But the report also points out that damage to forests is worse than the numbers most commonly used would suggest.

J: What did the report say about waterway damage?

A: It says an estimate of 1,200 miles of streams lost to mountaintop mining "doesn't address the loss of other headwater ecosystems." The report cites potential loss of springs and wet areas that may happen outside the stream channel and in smaller watersheds not included in previous studies. It also cites evidence that streams with high salinity caused by valley fills are permanently damaged.

J: What about damage to forests?

A: The new EPA report says more than 380,000 acres of Appalachia was "deforested" by surface mining between 1992 and 2002. By 2012, that area is expected to have increased to nearly one and a half million acres. It also points out that deforestation could eventually change the animal population to grassland rather than forest species.

J: Thanks for the overview.

A: Thank you.

J: We have more information about the guidelines and reports on our web site alleghenyfront.org