Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining Must Be Stopped, But Don't Blame the Corps For Following Orders


photo: Jake McClendon via flickr

At the beginning of the week the EPA put the Army Corps of Engineers on notice that it would be reviewing permits issued by the Corps for two mountaintop removal coal mining operations, one in West Virginia, the other in Kentucky. Though not explicitly stated, the spirit of the move was taken by some to mean that the EPA would be reviewing the entire mining practice and a halt on all permitting was in order. Apparently the Corps didn't pick up on that:Is the Army Corps of Engineers Really 'Rogue'
NRDC Switchboard describes the Corps as a "rogue agency" in its move to reinstate a permit for a controversial coal mining project in Kentucky, just hours after the original EPA letters were sent out. I'd like to get behind that characterization, but can't.

This is how the NRDC described how the Corps justified its actions:

When questioned by reporters about its decision to reinstate the permit the mountaintop mine in Leslie County, Kentucky, a spokesman for the Corps interpreted EPA's action as limited to two other controversial mines, one in West Virginia and another elsewhere in Kentucky.

The project the Corps reinstated permits on is not one of the ones mentioned by the EPA as being up for review. So, technically, the Corps did nothing wrong. The Corps is simply following the letter of the law. (How else would you expect it to act?)

After the EPA's initial announcement about its intent to review two mine applications made its way into the world, apparently the agency felt that it was we in the media and environmental community were the ones who were misinterpreting its intent and not paying enough attention to the letter of its, um, letters. It issued a clarification statement on the matter in line with the Corps spokesman's statement.

It is true, as post author Rob Perks says elsewhere about the mountaintop removal mining process that,

...it's hard to imagine how any mountaintop removal mining could safeguard downstream water quality and how the coal companies can re-create the streams they obliterate.  Frankly, it's laughable (not to mention offensive) to accept the Corps' premise that it's possible to actually "mitigate" the effects of mine operations — you simply can't replace a buried headwater stream by constructing a gravel-lined drainage channel.

Change the Letter of the Law
However, the Corps is only going to stop trying to mitigate the un-mitigatable if it is specifically directed to do so by its superiors, the EPA. Calling it a 'rogue agency' for doing what it has been assigned to do, even if those acts are ludicrous, won't get the practice stopped.

If we want that to happen, as I think it's clear we should, then it's not the Corps we should be attacking. We should be pressuring the EPA to step in and address the fact that dumping mining waste in streams and the Clean Water Act simply are incompatible—across the board, not just in two instances—no matter who does the permitting.

More: NRDC Switchboard
Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining
EPA Acts on Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining: Stream and Wetland Protections Inadequate
US Circuit Court Overturns Mountaintop Removal Mining Ban
Majority of American Public Opposes Mountain Removal

Tags: Coal | EPA | Pollution | United States

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