Obama Falls Short in Blunting Mountaintop Removal

By ERIC PIANIN, The Fiscal Times

July 11, 2013

During his 2008 campaign, President Obama pledged to rein in the coal industry’s efficient but destructive practice of mining huge seams of coal by “simply blowing the tops off mountains” and dumping the debris into valleys and streams below.

Over the past several decades,  coal companies have destroyed forests, brought down more than 500 mountains, polluted water, jeopardized public health and disrupted scores of communities through so-called mountain top removal.  Environmentalists who have studied the geological carnage left by all this blasting and earth removal refer to it as “surface mining on steroids.”

Today’s environmental cause célèbre is the growing  opposition to the energy industry’s highly destructive horizontal drilling and fracking for natural gas – the subject of  activist Josh Fox’s documentary “Gasland II” that made its debut on HBO Monday night.


But the damage done by mountaintop removal to the topography and ecology of Appalachia – which literally relegates once majestic mountain peaks to flat, sterile moonscapes – has led to many protests over the years and hundreds of lawsuits.

“The stated goal of the Clean Water Act is to protect the physical, chemical and biological integrity of the water of the United States,” Joe Lovett, executive director of the Appalachian Mountain Advocates, an environmental watchdog group, once testified. “It does not take a PhD in biology to see that blowing up the mountains and forests is bad for the environment.”

Industry officials say mountaintop removal mining gathers coal that wouldn’t be cost effective to mine through traditional underground methods. They say mountaintop removal provides jobs in some of America’s poorest areas, and that mining companies rebuild the hills or create areas where new highways, shopping centers, golf courses or airports can be built.

Environmentalists once had high hopes the Obama administration would sharply curb or stop mountaintop removal.  But administration victories have been few and far between.

And environmental groups that have battled the coal industry’s worst mining and reclamation practices for years are dubious Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency can do much more than slow the issuance of surface mining permits by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state agencies.

The states and the Army Corps were granted authority to issue mining permits under two sections of the Clean Water Act.  Critics say they have been too cozy with the mining industry for decades and are lax in their review of permit applications.

“The Obama administration has done some good things and taken some important small steps forward, but they fall far short of what we think he promised – which was to do whatever was needed to protect communities and people from the adverse effects of mountaintop removal,” said Jennifer Chavez, a lawyer with the environmental group Earthjustice. “What is needed is to stop the practice entirely.”

One of the administration’s few big victories came in April when the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., upheld the EPA’s right to veto a permit granted by the Army Corps for the Spruce Mine, a notorious project that would have allowed Arch Coal to destroy 3,000 acres of mountaintops and let toxic waste flow into six miles of pristine mountain streams in West Virginia.  Lovett hailed the decision and declared: “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has literally overseen the destruction of Central Appalachia, and EPA oversight is needed to stop it.” 

The mining industry and its allies have effectively blocked the crux of the administration’s anti-mountaintop removal initiatives – a series of memoranda announced in June 2009 that give guidance on how to reduce the adverse environmental impact of mountain top removal in Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. The idea was to force the Army Corps and state officials to give added weight to scientific evidence – including the effects of the debris or “valley fill” on downstream aquatic life — before granting permits.

Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House environmental council, said at the time that strict safeguards in the agreement made good on Obama’s pledge to limit the damage from mountaintop-removal mining while providing coal for the nation’s utilities. The coal industry successfully challenged the new policies in federal court, and that ruling is on appeal before the federal appellate court in the District of Columbia. Even if the Obama administration prevails, many believe the long-term impact of those rules could be modest.

“There are still scores of mines going forward that were either recently issued permits or just continuing operations, and many miles of streams still being buried,” noted Chavez of Earthjustice.

So if the Obama administration can’t stop mountaintop removal, who or what can?

Possibly, a bad economy and dramatic changes underway in the energy industry. The domestic market for coal to produce electricity has been shrinking for years, a victim of new clean air rules and other market forces.

Many utility companies have shifted from carbon spewing boilers to clean-burning natural gas facilities to take advantage of the cheaper cost of gas at the time and to prepare for the day when coal-fired power plants are phased out.

Things could get a lot worse for the coal industry if Obama prevails in implementing his recently announced climate-change agenda, which calls for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. That approach would be partly achieved by cutting carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Energy analysts say the new rules, combined with environmental standards now being implemented, could push about a third of the U.S. coal fired fleet into retirement, according to the Wall Street Journal. Last year, U.S. utilities burned 825 million tons of coal, down sharply from the one billion tons of coal burned in 2007.

Some of the nation’s largest coal companies have reported sharply declining profits and a few have filed for bankruptcy. Just last month, West Virginia billionaire Jim Justice, who made his fortune in coal and agriculture, acknowledged that his coal operations in Appalachia are struggling. Business owners have filed at least nine lawsuits since late 2011 claiming they are not being paid for work at Justice’s mines.

“The coal business is terrible, it’s just terrible and we’re doing everything in our power to stay open and keep people working,” Justice told the Associated Press.  “We’re one of the few [companies] that are even still working, trying to employ people and pay taxes.”

Some industry officials blame overly zealous government regulators including the EPA for their problems. In congressional testimony in March, Hal Quinn, president and CEO of the National Mining Association, complained that the increasingly challenging and time-consuming permit process is hurting many companies and driving away potential investors.

“While the United States has one of the world’s greatest mineral repositories, our ability to get these minerals into the supply chain to help meet more of America’s needs is threatened,” he said. “The U.S. has one of the longest permitting processes in the world for mining projects.” 

The coal industry is now increasing its exports to China, India and Europe.

Sen. Joseph Manchin, D-W.Va., a former governor who has strongly supported the coal industry and its practices, warned this week that Obama’s global warming initiative “stops coal production as we know it, whether it’s on top or underneath the mountain.”

“I don’t think it’s a sound policy for our nation,” Manchin told The Fiscal Times.  “We all agree we have to use coal in our portfolio up to 2040. That’s making it much more costly and economically almost impossible for anyone to build a new coal fired plant or upgrade an existing coal fired power plant.”


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