EPA Set to Nix Permit for Appalachia's Largest MTR Mine
More than 500 citizens turned out for an EPA public hearing in Charleston on May 19 to weigh in on the fate of the Spruce No.1 coal mine in Logan County, West Virginia. If the existing operation, above, is allowed to expand as planned, it would become the biggest mountaintop removal mining operation in Appalachia.
The EPA announced in March its proposal to revoke the mountaintop removal (MTR) permit for Spruce No.1 unless the mine, operated by St. Louis-based Arch Coal, was modified to reduce its environmental impact. According to the EPA's website, "we are concerned that the project could result in unacceptable damage to the aquatic system, particularly to water quality and fish and wildlife resources." The agency said the environmental damage would be irreversible.
"We're looking at this as a test of whether EPA will stand behind what they've been saying," said West Virginia Sierra Club organizer Bill Price, below. "The coal industry has been unable to prove it can do this type of mining without extreme impacts on the environment and the communities nearby."
West Virginia Sierra Club members have submitted hundreds of comments to the EPA about the Spruce No.1 mine and written letters-to-the-editor in support of the veto. Under President Obama, the EPA has adopted a policy designed to curtail the practice of valley fills—i.e., dumping waste from MTR operations (which mining companies refer to as "overburden") into the surrounding valleys.
"What the EPA has done is propose to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to veto the decision of the Army Corps of Engineers to issue the valley fill permit," Price said. "If the EPA finalizes this veto, it suggests the agency is taking what they've said very seriously, and we'll see a curtailment of MTR in Appalachia."
West Virginia Sierra Club Chair Jim Sconyers, below, said what's at stake at Spruce is "a clear determination, once and for all, that massive mountaintop removal mining destroys aquatic habitats, ruins people's drinking water, and destroys human communities. And there is no meaningful mitigation. The only way it could be accepted, if at all, would be to end the disastrous valley fills that make MTR possible."
Below, the Spruce No.1 mine encroaching on Pigeon Roost Hollow, W. Va.
Public comments on Spruce No. 1 are being accepted by the EPA until June 1. Click here to submit your comment to the EPA.
The first speaker at the May 19 hearing in Charleston was West Virginia Congressman Nick Rahall. "Pursuing this course would have a chilling effect on the coal industry and the Appalachian region," he said. "It will send a message that investing in coal mining is nothing but a high-risk bet."
MTR proponents charged that the EPA is proposing to revoke Spruce's permit for political rather than scientific reasons. Others accused the agency of mandating unattainable water quality standards for coal mining permits and killing jobs and putting people out of work "without a thought or care."
But many West Virginians in attendance viewed the situation very differently.
"The EPA is here not about our poverty, not about our political corruption, not about our jobs, not about the loss of our jobs, and it's not about shutting you down," said farmer and native West Virginian Sara Cowgill, below. "It's about the reality of the vital importance of clean water. And there is no question whatsoever that MTR mining is environmentally devastating and catastrophic to every community that it touches, extending into the entire state."
Added West Virginian Danny Chiotos, "We're not going to be able to have a West Virginia where my kids can have a job in 50 years if we blow up the mountains."