photo: Ellie Van Houtte via flickr.
In case you missed it, for the past couple of months a public squabble has been going on between the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers over permitting of mountaintop removal coal mining projects. The EPA's stance being that the Corps all too often hasn't done it's job in protecting water quality. Which it hasn't and hasn't for some time, at least since the administration of Bush II. Well, the EPA, the Dept of Interior and the Corps have kissed and made up, today issuing a Memorandum of Understanding on the issue:What's That About Purple Mountains Majesty?
The MOU opens by waxing poetic about the role of Appalachia's streams and forests in providing sustenance for generations of Americans, and in providing coal-fired heat and electricity. But since we've already used up all the easily accessible coal and can't seem to kick the high-power habit, we've got to resort to more intrusive methods to get our fix. And those methods lead to destruction of mountains, spoilage of ecosystems, ruination of streams and wetlands, and devastation of drinking water. Not to mention the ill health effects on people living in the region. So we have to do something about it.
In case you can't guess, I'm paraphrasing. And while you'd think any addict who has admitted their problem (as the US has done in regards to energy sources at least, if not quantities) would put themselves on some sort of reduction program. At minimum not flaming up the hard stuff. But no, that's not what's happening. Mountaintop removal coal mining will continue, it'll just get a bit more oversight.
Interagency Action Plan to be Implemented
The MOU indicates that an Interagency Action Plan will be implemented which will:
- Minimize the adverse environmental consequences of mountaintop coal mining though short-term actions to be completed in 2009;
- Ensure longer-term actions to tighten the regulation of mountaintop coal mining;
- Ensure coordinated and stringent environmental reviews of permit applications under the Clean Water Act and Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1997;
- Engage the public through outreach events in the Appalachian region to help inform the development of Federal policy;
- Federal Agencies will work in coordination with appropriate regional, state and local entities to help diversify and strengthen the Appalachian regional economy and promote the health and welfare of Appalachian communities.
In terms of those steps happening in 2009, this is what the Corps and the EPA say they will be doing to "minimize environmental harm":
- Requiring more stringent environmental reviews for future permit applications for mountaintop coal mining;
- Within 30 days of the MOU, the Corps will issue a public notice...proposing to modify Nationwide Permit 21 to preclude its use to authorize the discharge of fill materials into streams for surface coal mining activities in the Appalachian region, and will seek public comment on the proposed action;
- Strengthening permit reviews under CWA regulations (Section 404(b)(1)) to reduce the harmful direct and cumulative environmental impacts of mountaintop coal mining on streams and watersheds;
- Strengthening EPA coordination with states on water pollution permits for discharges from valley fills and state water quality certifications for mountain coal mining operations;
- Improving stream mitigation projects to increase ecological performance and compensate for losses of these important waters of the United States.
EPA Statements Encouraging, But Don't Go Far Enough
On the Interagency Action Plan EPA head Lisa Jackson commented that,
Mountaintop coal mining cannot be predicated on the assumption of minimal oversight of its environmental impacts, and its permanent degradation of water quality. Stronger reviews and protections will safeguard the health of local waters, and thousands of acres of watersheds in Appalachia.
Our announcement today reaffirms EPA's fundamental responsibility for protecting the water quality and environmental integrity of streams, rivers, and wetlands under the Clean Water Act. Getting this right is important to coalfield communities that count on a livable environment, both during mining and after coal companies move to other sites.
I realize I am expecting too much from elected officials, beholden to industry and a go slow approach to kicking the coal addiction, and while this is a step forward in terms of regulation—I guess we should be thankful for small things—I can't help but think as a nation the United States is still in denial about the sources of its energy and the amount of energy in consumes.
More: EPA (press release), Implementing the Interagency Action Plan on Appalachian Surface Coal Mining (PDF)
Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining
Majority of American Public Opposes Mountaintop Removal
Boo! EPA Approves All Byt Six Pending Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining Permits
Removing Mountaintops to Get Coal is Bad, But Dumping Fill in the Valleys is Even Worse