07/22/2014 09:33 am ET Updated Sep 21, 2014

EPA Court Victories Pile Up: It's Time To End Mountaintop Removal


On July 11, a D.C. federal court vindicated the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's attempt to finally start bringing more scrutiny to the problem of mountaintop removal.

A federal appeals court overturned a lower court's decision, and ruled that EPA was within its authority to take a closer look at this most extreme form of coal mining, coordinate with the other agency involved in the mine permitting process (the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), and guide its field staff to use sound, current science.

Now that courts have told the mining industry interests to get out of the way, it's time for EPA to step up and do more to protect communities.

All of this, after all, is part of the critical job Congress gave the EPA with the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972: Protect the American people, our communities, and our waterways.

If you wonder why the American people would need a federal agency charged with protecting them, look no further than mountaintop removal mining.

Mountaintop removal is an extreme method of coal extraction in which entire mountains are blown apart, nearby waterways are buried by valley fills, and communities are shaken, devastated, and displaced.

There is no way to rebuild a mountaintop or a stream. Once lost, they are gone for good.

But more than mountains and streams are lost. Twenty-two peer-reviewed scientific studies have linked mountaintop removal to increases in birth defects, certain kinds of cancer, and early death for the people who live near these mine sites.

For a long time, Appalachian community groups have been telling the rest of the nation, "This mining is killing us." Now, tragically, there's an extensive body of science telling us this is much more than rhetoric.

This huge court victory should tamp down overheated and misleading coal industry attacks against the EPA. The industry tried to stand in the way of every attempt to address the extreme practice and pollution of mountaintop removal mining. And unfortunately, states such as West Virginia and Kentucky, have become creatures of that industry, joining the fight against the EPA and working harder to protect coal's profits than their own residents.

In this one case alone, the coal industry and its friends challenged:

  1. The EPA's attempt to coordinate its review of about 100 of the worst-of-the-worst pending permits with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In the decision, U.S. Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh, a Bush appointee, highlighted the absurdity of the coal industry's complaint about two federal agencies consulting and coordinating with each other. Judge Kavanaugh asserted: "The right hand should know what the left hand is doing." Of course, setting up a wall between the two agencies responsible for regulating mountaintop removal mines makes it easier for the coal industry to get away with egregious dumping practices and evade deserved scrutiny - but this attempt thankfully failed.
  2. A document the EPA wrote to inform its own staff about the latest water science, which shows severely degraded water quality downstream, creating an environment incompatible with the most basic, elemental forms of stream life. When scientific facts might stifle profits, the industry does what it can to make the science disappear. Thankfully, the science prevailed here.

To date, with this latest court decision, all of the industry's lawsuits challenging EPA's authority on mountaintop removal mining have failed, vindicating the Obama administration and the EPA.

And so the time has come: The Obama administration and the EPA need to stop mountaintop removal mining. Though the court ruled that these actions are within the EPA's authority, they are still not nearly enough. It's time for the EPA to take definitive action to end this extreme form of mining.

The President and the EPA together must stop allowing the use of our waters as mining waste dumping grounds. The EPA must set serious and enforceable water quality requirements for pollution from mountaintop removal. The President, the EPA, and all federal agencies must make the science linking mountaintop removal mining to cancer, birth defects and deaths a vital part of their deliberations. And the EPA should exert its authority over mountaintop removal permits more forcibly, and more often.

Congress shouldn't wait, either. It needs to step up and pass the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (H.R. 526), which would halt this type of mining until more is known about the health impacts.

Mountaintop removal mining is an extreme, dangerous act that must be ended, and with this vindication, the President and his EPA must be the ones to end it.