05/02/2013 06:12 pm ET Updated Jul 02, 2013

EPA Refuses to Curb Deadly Coal Mine Pollution

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Poisonous gases, smog-creating chemicals, climate-disrupting methane, and tiny particles that can worm their way into human lungs with deadly effect: Pollutants emitted by coal mining are some of the most dangerous substances fouling the air we breathe.

But don't count on the Environmental Protection Agency to protect you from these contaminants. The EPA announced this week that it will not take steps to safeguard our air or the climate from coal-mine pollution.

In a five-page statement responding to my organization, the Center for Biological Diversity, and other conservation groups, the EPA flatly refused to establish any schedule or plan for using the Clean Air Act to reduce the millions of tons of air pollutants produced by coal mines.

Why? Because, the agency says, it has "other priorities."

As excuses go, this one is particularly inadequate. Setting pollution limits for coal mines should have been a no-brainer for the EPA, since it's vital for public health and the health of our planet.

There is tremendous potential for reducing dangerous air pollution from mines, including those already abandoned, while we transition away from coal and other dirty fossil fuels hurting our climate and threatening our future. And these reductions can be done in a cost-effective manner.

The law should also be kept in mind. The Clean Air Act simply doesn't allow the EPA to shrug off legal obligations by claiming to have other priorities.

The EPA's letter also cites the sequester and other budget cuts. But that's an equally poor excuse. Ever tried to escape a parking ticket by pleading that your wallet is flat? Government agencies have to honor their legal obligations just like you and me.

And if the EPA really doesn't have the funds or personnel it needs to follow the law and protect our lungs from dangerous pollution, it should mount a full-court press for adequate funding.

A little background on this disturbing decision: Several years ago, a coalition of environmental groups -- including our organization, WildEarth Guardians, Sierra Club, and Environmental Integrity Project, represented by the environmental law firm Earthjustice -- filed a petition urging the EPA to curtail the pollution spewed by coal mines.

Our petition called on the agency to list coal mines as a source of dangerous air pollution under the Clean Air Act. That would require the agency to ensure use of the best emission reduction systems.

These are commonsense measures. The EPA has, after all, already set such clean-air standards for gravel mines, coal-fired power plants, and dozens of other sources -- but not for pollution from coal mines.

When the EPA failed to act on this proposal to safeguard the air we breathe, our organizations sued over the unreasonable delay. On Tuesday, nearly three years after the petition was filed, the EPA issued what it calls a "final decision" on our petition: A brief statement refusing to commit to any plan or timetable to reduce air pollutants from coal mines.

To really understand how unacceptable this decision is, you have to know the dimensions of the problem.

Coal mines in America release more than 1,790 tons of volatile organic compounds every year, for example. These react with sunlight to create ground-level ozone, a contributor to smog and a major cause of asthma. More than 40,000 people a day suffer an asthma attack in America, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

Particulate matter from mining is also a huge concern. U.S. coal mines release more than 17,000 tons of particulate matter a year, including more than 10,000 tons of particles that are each less than 2.5 microns in diameter -- about 1/28th the width of a human hair. These little particles are horrifically damaging to the lungs.

And let's not forget methane, a potent greenhouse gas that makes a dangerous contribution to climate change. Coal mines release 10 percent of all U.S. methane emissions.

Controlling these pollutants doesn't require some amazing breakthrough. Existing technology already allows mines to reduce or eliminate much of this pollution, especially methane. But too often these voluntary safeguards aren't used.

So if the EPA's excuses don't wash, what's the real reason behind this unwise decision?

Perhaps the Obama Administration imagines some political advantage in avoiding this issue. The administration has delayed a number of pollution-control efforts lately, including regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants.

But that would be the worst excuse of all for not acting.

Controlling coal-mining air pollution is achievable, cost-effective, and consistent with similar rules for other polluters. And it will save lives among the millions of Americans afflicted with asthma and other respiratory problems. As they struggle for breath, they need the EPA to get to work on pollution control.