Area residents might not often give much thought to the mining practice known as mountaintop removal, in part because of the dearth of mountains in our fair state. Mountaintop removal is lamentably common, however, in Appalachia, and it’s ruinous to the environment.
Mountaintop removal is pretty much what it says it is. Huge earthmoving equipment and controlled explosions blast and scrape away the ridges of mountains to get to coal seams. The debris — massive amounts of rock, trees and dirt — ends up in streams and valleys nearby, contaminating them and altering their appearance. Studies have shown the practice contributes to polluted well water, tainted fish and toxic dust that pose health risks for humans.
Fortunately, the practice will soon be more closely regulated, if not halted altogether. That’s because the Washington, D. C., Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to revoke a mountaintop mining permit even after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, another federal agency, has approved it. In overturning a lower court decision, the appellate court said the EPA has the authority to revoke the permits under the Clean Water Act.
The EPA is the primary federal agency charged with enforcing the Clean Water Act. Before it can revoke a mountaintop mining permit, however, the agency is required to conduct an environmental review of the mining company’s application.
Not surprisingly, the coal industry, which is almost certain to appeal, has denounced the ruling. The industry objects, among other things, to what it called the “unbounded authority” the ruling gives the EPA to revoke permits. Not only does the coal mining industry object, but the ruling will likely result in an effort by lawmakers from mining states to rein in the EPA and gut its authority to regulate mountaintop mining.
That would be unfortunate. As important as coal mining is, mining companies cannot be allowed to kill streams, otherwise spoil the environment and imperil human health. The harm already done will linger for years.
Lawmakers would be wiser to act on existing proposals for a moratorium on new permits for mountaintop mining and give mining companies the opportunity to find less destructive ways to conduct business. Given that one alternative is an outright ban on the practice, they might be willing to adapt.