EPA Moves To End Mountaintop-Removal Mining

[ Posted Thursday, April 22nd, 2010 – 16:08 UTC ]

Happy 40th Earth Day, everyone!

Earth Day, as we all know, got going through the efforts of some starry-eyed idealistic hippie-types four decades ago. The "ecology" movement scored some of its biggest victories almost immediately, under (gasp!) President Richard Nixon, with the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and passage of some updated federal anti-pollution laws. Since that time, it has become the very mainstream "environmental movement." Today (for instance), most people recycle things without a second thought for where the concept came from.

But rather than stroll down memory lane with an overall history of the movement itself... well, OK, upon reflection... here is the original 1970s "ecology" flag, just for sentiment's sake:


...and just because it's a pretty cool looking flag, don't you think? Ahem.

Instead, I'd like to highlight some good environmentalist news from a few weeks ago, which didn't really get much media attention at the time. Perhaps if they had delayed the announcement, it would have made a bigger splash today, being Earth Day and all.

At the beginning of this month, the E.P.A. announced new regulations which will begin to bring an end to the horrendous practice of "mountaintop-removal mining." From the Washington Post story about the new rules:

The announcement by the Environmental Protection Agency ended months of bureaucratic limbo on the issue. It was hailed by environmentalists but condemned by coal industry officials, who said it would render a technique that generates about 10 percent of U.S. coal largely impractical.

At "mountaintop removal" mines, which are unique to Appalachian states, miners blast the peaks off mountains to reach coal seams inside and then pile vast quantities of rubble in surrounding valleys. Under the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, hundreds of such sites received federal permits.

But on Thursday, E.P.A. Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said those "valley fills" will be curtailed. She cited new scientific evidence showing that when rainwater is filtered through the jumbles of rock, it emerges imbued with toxins, poisoning small mountain streams.

"You're talking about no, or very few, valley fills that are going to meet this standard," Jackson said.

Now, the new rules probably won't be perfect. Few things are, and the mining companies are likely to look very hard for loopholes. And, even if they do prove to be perfect, the rules do "grandfather" in the existing mines. But these new rules will go a long way towards ending this devastating practice, and should be seen as a milestone along the road towards this goal.

For those unfamiliar with the term, in certain parts of Appalachia, most notably West Virginia and Kentucky, the mining companies developed a novel way to get the coal out of the ground -- take a mountaintop or ridge, blast it apart, and separate out the coal. The only problem with this is that, after blasting, you are left with a bigger volume of rubble than the mountain you started with. So the mining companies used surrounding gullies and valleys to dump the stuff, leaving a devastated wasteland behind.

The problem with this is that in those valleys are often streams. And the hard minerals and other unwanted substances can destroy the livelihood of those streams -- and, at times, the rivers they feed into. This is a major problem in the region, and environmentalists have been fighting it since it began. Although it is a problem limited to one region, the impact within that region is enormous. Again, from the article:

...rock is often piled up to form a mountain shape. But there is usually excess rock, which goes into surrounding valleys. Between 2000 and 2008, companies received permits for 511 valley fills. These often look like giant plugs, filling Appalachian ravines to the brim: in all, government data show, the plugs -- placed end to end -- would span 176 miles... satellite maps show flat, brown mine sites spreading among green mountains.

The new rules took effect immediately, although the E.P.A. is still open to public comment on them. This should effectively bar any new permits for mountaintop-removal mining to take place in the future. As the remaining mines play out, the concept of destroying an entire mountain to get at its coal will take its place in the history of "environmentally-destructive things we used to not even think about doing, but which we have now condemned and moved on from."

I would assume this was big news in the affected region. But it really should have been bigger news nationwide. Because this is a real and tangible step towards a better future. It's a step Bill Clinton gave lip service to, without ever actually taking (Clinton issued "guidelines," halfheartedly, on his way out of office -- knowing full well that George W. Bush would immediately overturn them when he took control... which Bush, of course, then did). But an E.P.A. rule goes right to (if you'll forgive me) the bedrock of the matter, and will not be easy for future presidents to overturn or ignore.

This truly is a monumental environmental achievement by President Obama, and while it does indeed provide some good news on Earth Day, one wonders why the White House hasn't made a bigger deal out of it in the media. OK, I realize Obama gave a rather momentous speech today, but long after that speech has been forgotten, the Appalachians will still be there for future generations. And that, as I said, is a good enough reason today to celebrate the 40th anniversary of a starry-eyed idealistic hippie movement, and what it has gotten accomplished so far.


-- Chris Weigant

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


9 Comments on “EPA Moves To End Mountaintop-Removal Mining”

  1. [1] 
    Kevin wrote:

    Geez, forty years. Now I really feel old. In 1970, my Social Studies teacher told us about the Cuyahoga river catching on fire and the hideous pollution of the Great Lakes; I became a semi-environmentalist on the spot. Nowadays, I gather that such an enlightened teacher would have been drummed out of the U.S. educational system for being a Commie. Sigh. As a fan of your country, I worry for you what with your wingnut infestation. But that is good news. I just hope that a healthy majority of your citizens are sentient adults and appreciate what Obama has managed to accomplish so early in his Presidency. Dissenting opinion from Michale in 3..2..1
    I went to university at UBC in Vancouver, which was at the forefront of the movement...we created Greenpeace, y'know? But forty years? Small steps...

  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Kevin -

    Yeah, we've come a long way from rivers that could actually CATCH FIRE, haven't we?

    Not exactly Cleveland's finest hour. I recently saw a documentary that had footage from it, had never actually seen the video before. Sobering, to say the least. Some things ought to be sacred. The love of a good woman... quality craftsmanship properly appreciated... the fact that #$%*-ing RIVERS shouldn't CATCH FIRE....


  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Note to all readers, and, by the way, where the heck is Liz recently, NHL playoffs or what?... ahem --

    Man, I just got swamped by the biggest HuffPost comment flood I've ever faced -- closing on 400 comments, as I write this (for Wednesday's Tea Party map column). I can count on the fingers of one hand my previous articles' comment threads that topped 200, and I've only ever topped 300 once before, so answering and addressing these has taken a lot of my time up. Plus, I'm trying to get a jump on tomorrow's FTP column, as well.

    So I apologize for not addressing my favorite commenters here, in the meantime. I promise, I'll get caught up this weekend.



  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:

    I just hope that a healthy majority of your citizens are sentient adults and appreciate what Obama has managed to accomplish so early in his Presidency. Dissenting opinion from Michale in 3..2..1

    With a lead-in like that, how can I not?? :D

    Seriously though, I should probably stay away from environmental issue commentaries...

    Because they generally lead to heated discussions about the con/fraud that is AGW and we don't want to open THAT con 'o worms.. er.. I mean "can o' worms" yea.. That's what I meant..

    Anyways, in and of itself, anything that actually does something to help this planet, that won't totally decimate our economy, I am all for....

    This move by Obama apparently falls under that category...

    So, {{wait for it}} Kudos to President Obama for finally doing SOMETHING right...

    I call that a minor accomplishment amidst all the disasters that have come down the road, courtesy of President Obama and the DP'er Congress....

    Mid-terms can't come soon enough...


  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    By the by...

    In spite of myself, I DO think that is a kewl looking flag... :D


  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:

    Note to all readers, and, by the way, where the heck is Liz recently, NHL playoffs or what?... ahem --

    I wanna know what ya'all did with MODERATE??!! :D

    Man, I just got swamped by the biggest HuffPost comment flood I've ever faced -- closing on 400 comments, as I write this (for Wednesday's Tea Party map column).

    Holy Crap O Monkees!!!

    That's a crapload of comments.

    Congrats!! :D


  7. [7] 
    jbl_inAZ wrote:

    Man, I just got swamped by the biggest HuffPost comment flood I've ever faced . . .

    So that's why you got me commenting over here instead of at HP :-)

  8. [8] 
    Michale wrote:

    Now THIS is funny, no matter WHICH side of the debate yer on.. :D


  9. [9] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Chris Weigant -

    [3] Promise? What happened to that promise? Weekend? It's friggin' Wednesday, dude, get with the program!


    Just to be evenhanded in my comment abuse, as it were...


    Michale -

    [5] Yeah, that's why I had to include it. It's such a cheerful, happy, American-centric (even) hippie flag, that I had to remind everyone what it looked like.


    That's what I like about you -- even when it must hurt (giving kudos to hippies, for pete's sake), you honestly admit things, at times. Heh.


    [7] This has been upside-down week here, as I usually answer these comments FIRST, before I go over to HuffPost. But, man, I was swamped, and typing as fast as my fingers could fly! I did get out of it a talking point for Friday, though (thanks again to DrCardio!).

    In normal times, I'd usually answer your comment here first. And, as an added bonus, you get a Tuesday and a Thursday column here from me that HuffPost doesn't see. What's not to love?



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