12 May 2009: Report

The Razing of Appalachia:
Mountaintop Removal Revisited

Over the past two decades, mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia has obliterated or severely damaged more than a million acres of forest and buried more than 1,000 miles of streams. Now, the Obama administration is showing signs it plans to crack down on this destructive practice.

by john mcquaid

Earlier this spring, the federal government was poised to give a green light to the Big Branch Surface Mine in Pike County, Kentucky. The Central Appalachia Mining Co. planned to deforest and demolish several mountain peaks in order to excavate 7.3 million tons of coal — the technique known as mountaintop removal. The resulting debris would fill five nearby valleys, burying more than 3½ miles of streams under massive, sculpted piles of rocks.

Big Branch wasn’t much different from the hundreds of other mountaintop projects across coal-rich Appalachia. It would disrupt the lives of residents in neighboring communities with blasting, heavy traffic from coal trucks, and runoff from denuded hillsides. Nature would take an even bigger blow. The project would obliterate forests and streams, foul waterways further down the mountain, and disrupt the delicate forest ecology for miles around.

While such mines are usually located in remote areas, their collective impact is enormous, and growing. An Environmental Protection Agency study estimated that by 2012, mountaintop removal projects in Appalachia will have destroyed or seriously damaged an area larger than Delaware and buried more than 1,000 miles of mountain streams.

Though such massive damage appears to violate several federal environmental laws, government agencies have routinely given mining companies leeway, and in this case, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was close to signing off on a debris-dumping “valley fill” permit for Big Branch.

Then the Environmental Protection Agency weighed in. To all appearances, the letter sent on March 23 from EPA Region 4 headquarters in Atlanta to the Corps’s district office in Huntington, W.Va., was routine mid-level interagency correspondence. But in fact, it was a warning shot in one of the first big environmental battles of the Obama administration.

James Giattina, regional director of the EPA’s water division, wrote that filling those five valley streams could violate the Clean Water Act’s wildlife protections. He advised the Corps and the coal company to come up with a more eco-friendly plan and invited them in to chat.

But if Giattina was hoping to foster a spirit of cooperation, he failed. Company executives broke off negotiations with the EPA after a few meetings; soon after, the Corps prepared paperwork approving the permit, just as it routinely did. Although the EPA does not process permits for so-called valley fills, it has an effective veto over them — and for the first time in years, the agency signaled it was ready to use it. In late April, the EPA held up the permit and launched a more detailed review.

George W. Bush was one of the best friends the coal industry ever had. Over the past eight years, Bush administration officials did nearly everything they could to clear the way for more mountaintop removal. They fought the court challenges that community groups filed against mining projects, watered down environmental regulations, and did little as scientific evidence grew showing the severe ecological damage of mountaintop projects.

But now, Obama has freed the EPA to flex its long-dormant regulatory muscle. Big Branch is one of five proposed mountaintop removal projects
During the past eight years, the Bush administration did nearly all it could to clear the way for more mountaintop removal.
the agency is challenging on similar grounds. That’s a small fraction of the backlog of pending permit applications before the Corps — there are about 200, many delayed due to now-resolved litigation — but the EPA’s actions will reverberate. The agency’s new approach may ultimately force coal companies to soften the impact of mountaintop removal projects, and perhaps cut back or even stop employing the technique altogether.

The EPA’s moves are a clear sign the federal bureaucracy that Bush often belittled has been granted the latitude to regulate again. Barack Obama came out against mountaintop removal during the presidential campaign (as did John McCain), and the EPA has moved swiftly to change course: Its first letter raising questions on a mountaintop project went out on Jan. 20, Inauguration Day.

Of course, the coal industry has powerful patrons in Congress and no shortage of lobbying money, so it’s an open question exactly how far the EPA will be able to go. So far, it’s handling the issue quite cautiously.

The EPA didn’t issue a blanket moratorium on valley fill permits but chose a handful of test cases instead. The agency announced on March 24 it was reviewing all pending permits, but then EPA administrator Lisa Jackson put out a statement hours later saying that “we fully anticipate that the bulk of these pending permit applications will not raise environmental concerns.” Still, environmental groups tracking the issue say that the problems in the permits the EPA has singled out can be found in many others. So this could be just the beginning of a much broader effort.

Interests on either side are girding for a regulatory trench war.

Carol Raulston, an executive vice president and spokesman for the National Mining Association, warns that the EPA’s review will delay permits that were the verge of approval and cost high-paying jobs during a recession. “This has not been a transparent process, so we are not sure what the objective is at the end of the road,” she says.

Environmental groups are encouraged but wary. “I don’t know if the Corps is going to soften its position. The important part to us is that the EPA continue to block these permits,” said Joan Mulhern, a lawyer with EarthJustice who works on anti-MTR litigation. “Of course, they [the EPA] said publicly that most of them are okay, which is a mystifying statement because none of them are okay.”

The Appalachian Mountain range dates back 300 million years. Its coal is the residue of peat bogs formed in tropical coastal swamps when there was a single supercontinent, Pangaea. But it takes only a matter of months to tear down a mountain peak using explosives and giant excavators. The technique is both faster and less labor-intensive than underground mining, and allows profitable access to thin coal seams that otherwise might not be worth harvesting. Since the mid-1990s, the coal industry has cut a swath of devastation through Appalachia’s remote, coal-rich highlands, one of the nation’s most dramatic cases of environmental devastation and regulatory failure.

The fate of the peaks has drawn international attention, but what goes on in the valleys is in many ways more significant. Each spring, the rain that falls on Appalachian mountainsides gathers into thin rivulets, mixing with spring water and groundwater. These streams, often no more than a foot wide, teem with microscopic, insect and animal life that is the foundation of the forest and river food chains and biodiversity. Plug up those intermittent and ephemeral streams with mining debris, and the ecological fallout extends far beyond the edge of the valley fill, into the surrounding forest and the larger perennial streams and rivers down the mountain.

A valley fill, for instance, profoundly alters forest hydrology. When the rainwater hits a valley fill instead of a stream bed, it filters through broken shale and sandstone before flowing out at the bottom. Ordinary minerals liberated from deep inside demolished mountains – heavy metals such as selenium and magnesium – infiltrate it and flow downstream.

During the Bush years, government scientists produced a growing pile of studies that show how valley fills foul waterways. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist A. Dennis Lemly found that heavy concentrations of selenium in West Virginia’s Mud River, downstream from the huge Hobet 21 mountaintop mine, were causing deformed fish. A 2008 EPA study showed that a huge increase in “specific conductance” – the concentration of electricity-conducting metallic ions – immediately downstream from valley fills was wiping out entire populations of mayflies, a ubiquitous species whose disappearance indicates broader ecological effects.

Destroying waterways and aquatic life are, of course, illegal. But in the bureaucratic funhouse of mountaintop removal, laws may say one thing while actions point in the opposite direction. By a commonsense interpretation, valley fills violate parts of two federal laws, the Clean Water and Surface Mining and Reclamation Acts. But since the 1990s the coal industry and its allies in government have engineered a series of legal and regulatory workarounds.

For instance, the surface mining law banned mining activity within a hundred feet of a stream if it had a significant impact on water quality or the environment — something that would seem to prohibit actually dumping mining debris into the stream in question. But that rule was never enforced, and in the waning days of the Bush administration it was rewritten to make the practice legal. (Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently announced plans to revoke that change, but left it unclear whether he intended to enforce a ban on dumping.)

Yet it’s the Clean Water Act that environmental groups have relentlessly focused on, filing a series of lawsuits charging the Corps with failing to meet its enforcement obligations, which state that “dredged or fill material should not be discharged into the aquatic ecosystem” if it will cause “significant degradation to the waters of the United States.” Among other things, that includes disrupting the life cycles of aquatic organisms and the loss of fish and wildlife habitat. Again, it seems logical to assume that burying a mountain stream would meet those criteria. But that’s not the way it’s worked up to now.

Put simply, the Corps evaluates the environmental effects of valley fills using techniques that many scientists criticize as insufficiently rigorous. U.S. District Judge Robert Chambers agreed, twice ruling that the Corps’s method was “arbitrary and capricious” (one of Chambers’ decisions — which helped to create the current backlog of permit applications — was later overturned on the grounds that agencies deserve deference in interpreting their own regulations, a victory for the oft-criticized Corps).

Scientists and environmental groups also object to the Corps’ approach to mitigation, the notion that you can make up for destroying one stream by building another one. That might mean digging a new stream bed nearby, or “mitigation banking” in which a mining company pays to protect and restore a wetland elsewhere.

But streams evolve in landscapes over the millennia and support complex webs of life that cannot be easily replaced, if at all. “Stream creation is outside the realm of current science,” says Margaret Palmer, a biology professor and stream specialist at the University of Maryland, who testified as an expert witness for environmental groups in the suits Chambers heard. “There’s no evidence you can do it. There’s no evidence at this point in time it’s even feasible.” A typical stream construction technique practiced by coal companies, she says, is crude at best: Old drainage channels are converted to “streams.”

This dispute remains unresolved in part because the law divides responsibility for valley fills between the Corps, EPA, the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining, and the states. “The permitting
At least up to now, the coal industry has usually gotten what it wants, giving it little incentive to negotiate.
process is complicated, there’s a lot of agencies involved,” says Jeff Collins, a Corps regulatory program manager overseeing valley fills. “The EPA isn’t as close to it as the Corps is. So they don’t always understand everything we look at, the lengths we go to to minimize impacts and look for alternatives.” Moreover, the rules limit the Corps’ jurisdiction to the stream itself and 100 feet on either side. “The Corps is saying, what we have to look at is the stream,” Collins says, “there are other agencies that control what happens on the whole mine site.”

It’s the EPA’s job to look at the entire ecosystem. And the crossed lines of authority have created a regulatory morass and led to erratic, desultory enforcement. The result has been drift: Coal companies can get permission to demolish mountains and fill streams, but they must also deal with more regulatory hurdles while facing continued uncertainty. It’s this situation, untenable for all involved, that the EPA is attempting to resolve.

“It’s up to the administration, but it would be ideal if we could get the Corps, EPA, OSM [Office of Surface Mining], and the states to sit down and look at the policy of [mountaintop removal] coal mining and come to a decision on how to move forward…” says Brian Frazer, chief of the EPA’s wetlands and aquatic resources regulatory branch. “Once it happens, coal mining will continue, but it will be more environmentally friendly. Personally, I don’t think we are too far away from that.”

But the stakeholders do not seem eager for a compromise. At least up to now, the coal industry has usually gotten most of what it wants, giving it little incentive to negotiate. Environmental groups want to see mountaintop removal banned outright. And the Corps, which must also participate in any negotiation, has jealously guarded its permit authority from what it sees as EPA interference.

Yet there are some signs of change from the top in addition to the EPA’s actions. Obama’s nominee to run the Corps, Jo-Ellen Darcy, handled environmental issues for the Senate Finance Committee and is well-regarded by environmental groups. But the Corps is a very traditional bureaucracy and notoriously resistant to change, and she’ll have many other challenges. Moreover, it’s doubtful that a true middle ground — in which mountaintop removal continues with limited changes and the mountain environment is preserved — even exists.

Frazer said the EPA hopes to limit the damage to stream beds by reducing the size of some valley fills, paying more attention to their placement, and by doing more, and better, stream restoration. Such a negotiated, incremental approach could blunt some of the damage, but may not significantly reduce the vast scale of mountaintop projects.

And coal companies will resist major changes, especially in the size of valley fills. A study commissioned by the EPA found that sharply limiting the size of valley fills would also restrict the amount of coal harvested. Capping them at 35 acres — a fraction of the size of the average fill, which can cover hundreds of acres — would reduce mountaintop coal production by 77 percent. That would be a dream come true for environmentalists — and a nightmare for the coal industry.

POSTED ON 12 May 2009 IN Business & Innovation Climate Forests Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Pollution & Health North America North America 


I just spent three days in Washington, May 21, 22, 23. Our group was met by some EPA officials from Lisa Jackson's office. They were very gracious, and listened intently to our concerns. I am cautiously optimistic. However, no industry should have the power that the coal industry has. It is difficult to reign in someone who has been getting their way in all circumstances for many years. We must stop mountain top removal if we are to save the mountains and the culture and people of Appalachia.
Posted by Katheryne Hoffman on 13 May 2009

Thanks for writing this excellent article.
Posted by David Soto on 13 May 2009

Interesting article that gives a nice overview of the issues. I was very bothered, however, by your repeated references to "harvesting" coal. Using this terminology in effect reduces the brutal methods used in mountaintop removal mining to the level of just another agricultural product. Coal is not a renewable resource and its "harvesting" is a one-time thing. The "harvesting" of coal produces irreversible damage to the environment of Appalachia, displaces the people who live there, and is destroying a unique and precious culture.
Posted by Penny Messinger on 14 May 2009

John -
Thanks for writing this for Yale Environment 360. I have worked extensively doing GIS analysis on MTR since 2005. I must point out that the figure of 1,000 streams by 2012 is quite low, however.

The 2003 EIS from the EPA had already documented 1,200 miles of streams buried or otherwise directly impacted by MTR. That figure was based on 1999-2001 data. Needless to say, the actual figure has since risen as is most likely well over 1,500 miles. Current estimates place the impacts to streams at somewhere between 1,200 and 2,000 miles.

I have also completed a study that analyses the surface area extent of MTR and all forms of strip mining. To date, just under 1.2 million acres have already been impacted, and as much as 1.25 million may have already been impacted. At any rate, there is no doubt that whatever figures we use, they will surely rise if the backlog of pending MTR permits is given full approval by the Obama administration. The time is now to stop this nonsensical practice.

Ross Geredien
FES 2006
Posted by Ross Geredien on 18 May 2009

This Chicago Tribune article paints a rather different picture of the Obama administration as of June 1. Apparently the government has recently and quietly opened the door to more than 20 mountaintop removal projects, some of them controversial.

Posted by Courtney Woo on 11 Jun 2009

Although U.S. mountaintop removal sites by law must be reclaimed after mining is complete, reclamation has traditionally focused on stabilizing rock formations and controlling for erosion, and not on the reforestation of the affected area. Fast-growing, non-native grasses such as lespedeza sericea, planted to quickly provide vegetation on a site, compete with tree seedlings, and trees have difficulty establishing root systems in compacted backfill. Consequently, biodiversity suffers in a region of the United States with numerous endemic species.
Actually this is a serious environmental problem and even though steps are being taken, the damage was too great.
Thanks for the nice article.
Posted by Nicole Stuart on 10 Sep 2009

I am a college student that has lived in West Virginia for many years. All my life I have grown up around the black dust that coal produces. As I see it, I am also truly against the removal of mountain tops, but what about West Virginia's economy? If we were to completely rid of coal the economy of the State would be in drastic problems. Most of the people I have grown up with and have grown close to are miners not because they had to but because they wanted to. Our economy depends on the coal production for our income. By ridding of the coal production West Virginia families would have problems functioning with loss of money. Instead of debating on the mountain removal and trying to bury the Carbon Dioxide underground we need to come up with more effective issues that will also benefit the states the are dependent on the coal for income.
Posted by Kaitlyn Mullins on 16 Sep 2009

i agree with Kaitlynn. Almost 100% the economy would be gone here in Appalachia if we were to stop coal mining, but i think we should put a cap on it. A lot of kids believe they don't need school because they can mine. We need to make these kids realize that we need to change our present course andt try to better educate the next generation so we can move away from coal
Posted by Don Schafer on 19 Sep 2009

It is true that the economy of West Virginia would be heavily impacted by either removal or capping of mountaintop removal. In the same sense, however, we cannot even begin to truly understand the ecological as well as biological and evolutionary impact we'd have upon the species living nearby. Evolution has taken millions of years to get to truly where it is now. If we start tampering with natural systems then there is no knowing what we'll actually start. We very well could cause a rapid and strange evolution of species, or it could cause any number of species to vanish altogether.
Posted by Jonathan Kiser Sept. 22 2009 on 22 Sep 2009

Interesting article that gives a nice overview of the issues. I was very bothered, however, by your repeated references to "harvesting" coal. Using this terminology in effect reduces the brutal methods used in mountaintop removal mining to the level of just another agricultural product. Coal is not a renewable resource and its "harvesting" is a one-time thing. The "harvesting" of coal produces irreversible damage to the environment of Appalachia, displaces the people who live there, and is destroying a unique and precious culture.

Posted by Dario Maretti on 10 Jan 2010

Comments have been closed on this feature.
john mcquaidABOUT THE AUTHOR
John McQuaid is a journalist specializing in science, environment, and various forms of government dysfunction. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Smithsonian, Slate, U.S. News, Wired, and Mother Jones, among other publications. His reporting at the New Orleans Times-Picayune won shares in three Pulitzer Prizes. He is also the co-author of Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms.



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