Emmylou and the EPA Take on Big Coal

Article excerpt

Tough new standards may save Appalachians mountaintops

IN NASHVILLE'S HISTORIC RYMANT Auditorium in May, country singer Emmylou Harris and friends performed at the "Music Saves Mountains" concert, raising their voices to protect Appalachia from the ravages of coal mining.

"We call the Ryman the Mother Church of country music, and if that's true, then the Appalachian Mountains are its sacred ground," Harris told the authence.

Harris shared the stage with singers Dave Matthews, Alison Krauss and Kathy Mattea, a longtime opponent of the controversial and profitable practice of blowing up mountaintops to get at the coal underneath.

"If the prosperity of some is built on the exploitation of others, everyone loses," Mattea said. "I'm a hillbilly and proud of it ... but I don't stand against coal or any fellow Appalachian. Yet something must change because the situation as it stands now cannot go on."

More than 500 mountains in Appalachia have been leveled since mountaintop removal (MTR) mining was first introduced in the 1960s. Since then, about 2,000 square miles of forest in Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia and Virginia have been destroyed - an area about the size of Delaware.

"You won't find mountaintop mining in the Sierra Nevada, in the Rockies, in the Adirondacks," said Allen Hershkowitz of the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), for which the sold-out concert raised money. "It's an outlier technology and we want to make it illegal."

In April, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took a big step in that direction, adopting tough new water quality standards in coal country that signaled the Obama administration's opposition to MTR. The EPA said the new rules applied to all MTR operations in Appalachia, including the largest in West Virginia history.

In 2007, after a decade of wrangling, the Army Corps of Engineers gave Arch Coal a permit to start blasting 2,300 acres at its Spruce No. 1 Mine in Logan County, W. Va. The EPAs announcement last month that it intended to block the project brought swift condemnation from Big Coal.

"I am shocked, dismayed and disgusted at [thel EPAs actions. All of the other agencies involved in the Spruce Mine permit have ... opposed EPAs efforts to initiate this veto action," said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association.

If the EPA does block the Arch Coal operation, the shock waves will reverberate far beyond Logan County. It will officially put the federal government on the side of groups like the Sierra Club and local activists who have been fighting MTR for decades. It could stop MTR in Appalachia altogether.

The EPAs new rules were adopted just two months after a January 2010 Science Magazine criticized current regulations practices because mountaintop mining impacts are pervasive and irreversible and mitigation cannot compensate for losses." The lead author of that report praised the EPAs new water-quality standards as both appropriate and significant. The EPA plans to test how easily water conducts electricity as a measure of how many trace metals and sulfates have leached into streams from MTR operations.

"If [the] EPA sticks to its guns, I think mountaintop mining will end in Appalachia because there's no way coal companies can meet the standards," said Margaret Palmer of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. Palmer's team analyzed 2,500 water samples collected by West Virginias Department of Environmental Protection. In watersheds with no MTR operations, contaminants were low and aquatic life was varied and abundant. In streams where MTR was occurring, enough trace metals and sulfates to poison virtually every living thing downhill and downstream from the mines was found.

"Notwithstanding recent attempts to improve reclamation, the immense scale of mountaintop mining makes it unrealistic to think that true restoration or mitigation is possible with current techniques," said Keith Eshleman, one of the study's five authors. …