I'm not sure if the EPA is addled, or downright shameless, but on the heels of meeting with besieged Appalachian coalfield residents and less than three months since its ballyhooed new guidance rules to halt reckless mountaintop removal operations, President Obama's Environmental Protection Agency has once again gone back on its word and green-lighted a dangerous mountaintop removal permit in a hair-brained pander to Big Coal that will knowingly destroy miles of critical headwater streams.
The piss poor week of coal news this week makes the BP disaster look like a cake walk. If only I could be glib and declare: The more things change, the more things stay the same. Peabody Energy announced they're opening a massive strip mine in Mongolia that will dwarf Wyoming's Powder River Basin to "solve world poverty;" Australia's strip mines continue to disappear historic communities; and the NY Times pointed out that Big Coal receives over $100 billion annually in welfare from Europe.
In the case of the Appalachian coalfields, where millions of pounds of ammonium nitrate fuel oil explosives are detonated daily in historic mountain communities and American citizens live in contaminated watersheds, the EPA's giddy support for the St. Louis-based Arch Coal's Pine Creek strip mine in Logan County, West Virginia is not only a travesty, but a costly one.
Logan County is already under assault for flooding, due to extensive strip mines in the area.
And the misguided decision, alas, comes at such a sad moment -- the same week of the death of legendary West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, who announced only one month ago:
If the process of mining destroys nearby wells and foundations, if blasting and digging and relocating streams unearths harmful elements and releases them into the environment causing illness and death, that process should be halted and the resulting hazards to the community abated.
Exactly one year ago, EPA official John Pomponio testified before the Senate that mountaintop removal irreversibly destroyed headwater streams. Pomponio declared:
"These little streams are like capillaries in your blood system," Pomponio said. "They're what travel through the landscape and capture the pollutants, clean those pollutants. And we frankly don't know where the tipping point is in losing one stream, five streams, or 18 streams in a particular watershed."
Last week, Pomponio authored the letter to the US Army Corps of Engineers, which allows Arch Coal to go forth with its mountaintop removal operation, after making changes to its application that will affect only 22% of the damage -- which means, 78% of the estimated 14,000 feet of critical streams will be destroyed.
In his letter, Pomponio lauds Arch Coal's efforts to create artificial ditches as replacements for natural headwaters, a bogus "mitigating" effort that Dr. Margaret Palmer decried as too ineffective to support the native aquatic community in the same historic Senate hearing last year.
"This is a devastating first decision under guidelines that had offered so much hope for Appalachian residents who thought the EPA was standing up for their health and water quality in the face of a horrific mining practice," said Amanda Starbuck of the Rainforest Action Network.
The grand words being spoken by Administrator Jackson in Washington are simply not being reflected in the EPA's actions on-the-ground. This continues the inconsistent and contradictory decisions that have plagued the EPA's process on mountaintop removal coal mining all along.
For West Virginia coal miner's widow Lorelei Scarbro and leader with the Alliance for Appalachia, who has met numerous times with the EPA, the decision is nothing less than an act of betrayal to the Appalachian people. In a personal letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson yesterday, Scarbro wrote:
I just finished reading what amounts to a green light by Region 3 EPA on the Pine Creek permit in Logan County, WV. I have to say that this disturbs me. I have been involved in the battle to stop, not regulate, mountaintop removal coal mining since the coal mine moved in next door to my home at the base of Coal River Mountain in Rock Creek, WV. I watched my husband die of black lung after 35 years as an underground union coal miner. I watch as people I love get sicker each day from contaminated water after raising their family in Prenter Hollow, WV.
I have left my very peaceful home 3 miles up in Rock Creek and traveled to DC many times in the past 2 years to help the powers that be to really see the face of coal. I hope that by telling the people on Capitol Hill how the decisions they make affect the lives of the people in the mountain communities they might begin to see us as valuable. Too often we are treated like collateral damage or just the price of doing business. I have been in many meetings with David Evans, Brian Fraizer and many others at EPA in DC and Region 3. I have met with CEQ, OSMRE and many other regulatory agencies and countless numbers of Senators and Congressmen trying to make a difference.
I was on the call on April 1 when you released the guidance for conductivity levels and I was very excited when I heard you say " You're talking about no or very few valley fills that are going to be able to meet standards like this." The release of this guidance and your words brought hope to many people that long ago lost it.
I have been very thankful for all of the steps this EPA has taken to improve life in the mountain communities of Appalachia, but I was heartbroken when I saw the decision on Pine Creek. Although I live about 1 ½ hours from this area I stand with the citizens there and I fear that this is just the beginning of many more permit releases. We believed you when you spoke about "zeroing out valley fills". Where I am from, sometimes all you have is your word. People here have historically made life altering decisions on nothing more than a handshake and their word.
I am a 54 year old widow of a coal miner and the most important thing to me is clean drinking water for my grandchildren. I don't believe that is possible if we continue to
destroy and cover head water streams in Appalachia. Once again, I have lost hope. Please don't let this be the final word on Pine Creek Surface Mine.
The EPA's pander is a wakeup call that nothing less than an act to abolish mountaintop removal operations, such as the Clean Water Protection Act, will bring this egregious human rights and environmental violation to an end.
To this end, the Alliance for Appalachia needs your help -- they need donations to get this important ad on national TV to bring home the cost of the catastrophe of mountaintop removal and strip mining to coal-fired consumers -- including Lisa Jackson and the EPA -- across the nation.
Follow Jeff Biggers on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jeffrbiggers