The number of Appalachian streams buried during surface mining should drop significantly under new guidelines, the nation's top environmental regulator announced Thursday in a move hailed by environmentalists.
The water-quality guidelines probably will limit creation of valley fills, which often bury parts of streams. Coal companies create fills by putting excess rock into valleys and hollows near the area being mined.
Few fills will be able to meet the new standards, Lisa Jackson, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said during a conference call.
"Obviously, we're talking about minimizing or zeroing out valley fills," Jackson said.
Groups opposed to mountaintop mining saw the move as a major victory. Many say federal regulators have not properly enforced water-quality rules on the coal industry for decades.
"Today's announcement is a major step toward protecting Appalachia's natural heritage. If effectively implemented and vigorously enforced, this policy will largely prevent coal companies from dumping mining waste into streams," the Sierra Club said in a news release.
The Sierra Club called the new policy the most significant administrative step ever taken on mountaintop mining.
Tom FitzGerald, executive director of the Kentucky Resources Council, said the new EPA policy will fit well with a protocol on reducing the number and size of valley fills already worked out in Kentucky by his group, regulators and the coal industry.
There is great concern in the coal industry about the EPA's move, however.
It would seem the policy could greatly limit surface and underground mining, said Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association.
"The decision by the EPA was made with no consideration as to how it will negatively affect mining jobs in Kentucky or our ability to produce affordable power for the commonwealth through coal," Bissett said.
Bissett said it is unfair that the policy applies only in Appalachia and only to coal, when other activities such as road construction also create fills and have an effect on water quality.
Jackson said one reason for the EPA's decision is the large scope of surface mining in Appalachia. An estimated 2,000 stream miles in the region have been buried by mining since 1992, the agency said in a news release.
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.
A draft study the EPA released found the level of chemical ions in streams below mountaintop mines and valley fills was 10 times greater, on average, than in unmined watersheds.
The EPA is concerned not just about the environmental effects but the impact on human health, Jackson said.
What Jackson actually announced was the EPA's intent to use a standard on conductivity in decisions on whether to issue mining permits.
Conductivity is a measure of the level of substances such as chlorides, sulfates and dissolved solids in water. Water leaches those substances out of crushed rocks in mined sites and fills.
High conductivity is an indicator of a higher level of contaminants.
The EPA has not used such a standard in deciding whether to grant permits until now.
The agency will take comments on the standard and make necessary adjustments, but it plans to begin using it on an interim basis right away.
The new standard will not apply to existing permits but will be used in evaluating dozens of pending permit requests that the EPA has held up for additional review, including more than 40 from Kentucky.
Jackson said the EPA's intent is not to shut down mining but rather to fulfill the obligation to protect water quality.
"This is not about ending coal mining. This is about ending mining's pollution," she said. "The people of Appalachia shouldn't have to choose between a clean, healthy environment in which to raise their families and the jobs they need to support them."
Ricky Handshoe, who lives in Floyd County and is a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, welcomed the EPA's move. But it doesn't help places already damaged by contaminated water, he said.
He said the stream in front of his house is orange with mine runoff.
"There's not a fish down here, a crawdad," he said. "It's not a victory where I live simply because it's been destroyed. For other communities, this is a victory."