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Mountaintop-removal coal vetoed for Appalachian streams

In an unprecedented move, the Environmental Protection Agency uses the Clean Water Act to block a large coal-mining project in West Virginia.

Coal's ecological footprint begins well before we burn it for electricity, regardless of how efficiently its carbon is ultimately processed, captured or sequestered.

Removing the top of a mountain to reach underground coal seams is a fairly obvious example.

First, explosives significantly alter the mountain's profile. Forests are also cleared. Topsoil is removed. Less obvious—at least to anyone not living near the mountain—are the mines' influences on the environment at lower altitudes: filled-in streams, contaminated drinking water, and birth defects in aquatic wildlife.

On Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency used its veto power via the Clean Water Act to stop the Spruce No. 1 coal mine, a large mountaintop removal project that would bury seven miles of headwater streams and affect 2,278 acres of forestland in West Virginia.

From the EPA proposal explaining the veto:

Applying the lessons of the past, we now know that failure to control mining practices has resulted in persistent environmental degradation in the form of acid mine drainage and other impacts that cost billions to remedy...We know the regulatory controls currently in place have not prevented adverse water quality and aquatic habitat impacts at other surface mining operations.

This is only the 12th time in the Clean Water Act's almost 40-year history that the EPA has implemented this authority, and the first time it's done so for an already authorized project. The decision does not bode well for other mountaintop extraction plans in the Coal River basin.

After a 13-year-long authorization process, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted Arch Coal, Inc. permission for the project in 2007. Litigation has delayed the mining ever since. Responding to the EPA's decision, Arch Coal, the country's second largest coal producer, vows to defend their permit through all legal means possible.

The EPA highlighted the following as the mine's possible negative impacts to the Appalachian ecosystem:

  • degraded water quality from high levels of total dissolved solids and selenium, as well as producing conditions for golden algae, an invasive species toxic to some aquatic species
  • harm to wildlife including freshwater invertebrates, salamanders, fish, birds, and bats

Participating in the legislative action against the Spruce No. mine, Earthjustice's senior attorney Joan Mulhern states:

Mountaintop removal mining must be recognized as what it is: a reckless and barbaric form of mining that rips apart mountains, buries streams and waterways with hazardous waste, contaminates drinking-water supplies, and poisons people and wildlife.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com