EPA finalizes controversial surface-mining guidelines

Coal industry finds water-quality standards particularly problematic

bestep@herald-leader.comJuly 22, 2011 

Federal regulators have finalized surface-mining guidelines that have caused controversy in Appalachian coal country, including Eastern Kentucky.

The guidelines include a new standard for judging the effect of mining on water quality.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said use of the guidelines will better protect water quality and aquatic life in streams below mountaintop strip mines. Runoff from mining operations contains substances such as chlorides and sulfates that can damage water quality.

"We have a responsibility under the law to protect water quality, and this guidance allows EPA to work with companies to meet that goal, based on the best science," Nancy Stoner, an agency official, said in a statement Thursday.

Many environmentalists have hailed the guidelines as a significant improvement.

However, opponents, including the coal industry, have argued that the EPA put the guidelines in place improperly and that coal companies can't meet them.

The guidelines will cripple companies' ability to get permits and, as a result, wipe out production and jobs in Eastern Kentucky and Central Appalachia, the industry has argued.

The EPA issued the guidelines on an interim basis in April 2010. In January, the Herald-Leader reported that in the eight months after that, only two companies got new federal water-pollution permits for mountaintop mines in Eastern Kentucky, and both rejected them as too stringent.

The industry is challenging the EPA, which has said it is possible to meet the new standards and still mine coal.

Some state regulators don't like the guidance standards either.

Len Peters, head of the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, said in a statement Thursday that the federal agency had overstepped its authority and used the interim guidelines to object to legal mining permits.

"I am not optimistic that release of this final guidance will lead to a different outcome," Peters said.

What the EPA finalized Thursday was a document with guidance for regulators to use in reviewing whether to grant applications for surface-mine permits.

The guidance includes using a standard on conductivity in decisions on whether to issue mining permits. Conductivity is a measure of the level of substances such as sulfates and dissolved solids in water. Water leaches those substances out of crushed rocks in mined sites and valley fills.

High conductivity is an indicator of a higher level of contaminants.

The EPA had not used such a standard in permit decisions before last year.

In announcing the interim guidelines last year, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said the standards would limit the number and size of valley fills that coal companies create.

In mountaintop mining, companies blast off the upper reach of a mountain to uncover a coal seam, then put excess rock into nearby valleys, creating a valley fill. That often buries sections of streams.

An estimated 2,000 stream miles in Central Appalachia have been buried by mining since 1992, the EPA has said.

Jackson also said there is growing scientific evidence that drainage from surface mines and valley fills in Appalachia includes contaminants that hurt water quality and aquatic life.

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