EPA Announces New Water Quality Standards for Mountaintop Removal Permits

mountaintop removal mining photo

Photo: Silvia Alba via Flickr

Lisa Jackson announced a new EPA guidance document today that will create new standards for mountaintop removal project permits. Some of us were hoping (if unrealistically) for an all-out ban, but the move should at least reduce the damage to water quality that mountaintop removal is known for.The major highlight of the new guidance is the EPA's concern over the electrical conductivity found in streams near mining sites. (Conductivity is the measure of water's ability to conduct an electric current, and in the context of mountaintop removal, it is a good indicator of damage to a stream because it reveals dissolved solids in the water that can kill aquatic life.)

In trying to understand the environmental impact of mountaintop removal, some studies looking at conductivity have relied on a benchmark of 500 microsiemens per cubic centimeter, a level above which streams can suffer irreversible damage—but today's announcement points to a new study warning that even levels of 300 microsiemens can be harmful. (Scary, then, that Jackson mentioned this morning having seen levels as high as 4,000 or 5,000.)

For non-scientists, what this means is that permits for mountaintop removal projects will be held to higher environmental standards. So in theory, if a mining proposal has no plan for keeping water damage to below 500 microsiemens per cubic centimeter, it will not be granted a permit. The case of Spruce Mine gives reason to believe this will be upheld.

As for the 300 level, as Coal Tattoo explains, "if modeling suggests conductivity will end up between 300 and 500, then EPA 'should work with the permitting authority to ensure that the permit includes conditions that protect against conductivity levels exceeding 500.'"

In a conference call with the press today, Lisa Jackson made it clear that "this is not about ending coal mining—this is about ending coal mining pollution."

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