07/07/2010 11:21 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is the EPA Afraid to Piss off King Coal?

While working on environmental issues, from food safety to energy and climate, I've seen a recurring theme: the federal regulatory agencies that are charged with monitoring big industries and guarding our public and environmental health wind up cowing to the interests of those industries over sound science and public safety. The BP oil disaster and the appalling role of the Minerals Management Service (MMS) is of course a recent and very blatant example. Another example that has received much less attention but is no less egregious is the relationship between King Coal and the EPA.

With the nation's eyes on the BP disaster, the EPA, without publicly announcing the action, recently green lighted a major new mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining permit in Logan County, West Virginia. The permit approves the destruction of nearly three miles of currently clean streams and 760 acres of forest, in a county where at least 13 percent of the land has already been permitted for surface coal mining.

Even though the EPA has released its own studies showing the irreparable damage that MTR has on stream health and aquatic life, it is simultaneously green lighting new mountaintop removal permits. How can that possibly make sense?

For decades, Appalachian residents have been decrying the impact of mountaintop removal coal mining -- the practice of blowing up whole mountains (and dumping the toxic debris into nearby streams and valleys) to reach seams of coal. Environmentalists, leading scientists, congressional representatives and even late coal state Senator Byrd have all called for the end of this mining practice, which is devastating our purple mountains majesty and poisoning drinking water.

A paper released in January 2009 by a dozen leading scientists in the journal Science concluded that mountaintop coal mining is so destructive that the government should stop giving out new permits all together. "The science is so overwhelming that the only conclusion that one can reach is that mountaintop mining needs to be stopped," said Margaret Palmer, a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences and the study's lead author.

Essentially, everyone from federal regulators to Appalachian residents (everyone except King Coal and some very loud coal state representatives, that is) has acknowledged the devastating impact that this mining practice is having on mountains, drinking water and communities. At issue is not whether mountaintop mining is bad for the environment or human health, because we know it is and the EPA has said it is. At issue is whether President Obama's EPA will take the gloves off and do something about it.

It is infuriating that we have to demand the EPA follow its own science. Mountaintop removal coal mining is an unnecessary and outdated practice that has no place in the 21st century or in our clean energy future, and the EPA knows it.

The sad reality, however, is that King Coal and its lobbyists and representatives in Washington have tremendous political power that takes precedence over public health. When the EPA makes a decision -- and I genuinely believe there are good people in the EPA who want to make the right decisions for the people and the environment -- they have to consider the heat they will take from industry. Perhaps it's time the EPA considers the heat it will take from the rest of us who are tired of sacrificing our health for big industries profits.

The loose safety regulations, slack oversight and outright legislative support that our government provides for corporations, most egregiously dirty energy corporations like BP and Massey Energy, have become all too clear recently. If we are to end our nation's dangerous addiction to fossil fuels, it is critical that we build enough public pressure and create the political space necessary to beat back Big Oil and King Coal's influence in Washington.

For starters, take action today by calling EPA's Lisa Jackson to demand she stop cowing to King Coal.