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EPA Taking a Harder Look at Mountaintop Removal

September 18, 2009

CHARLESTON, WV - The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is holding 79 pending mountain-top coal removal permits for further review. The agency says it has concerns about the practice of blasting mountain tops to remove coal and then dumping the debris into valleys and streams. Coal companies have applied for the permits in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee.

Joe Lovett, executive director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, supports EPA's review, but admits he's not sure what the agency plans to do. He's encouraged by the news since existing laws have not been enforced in the past.

"The way surface mining is being conducted in this region violates the clean water act and the surface mining act, and we have state agencies that refuse to enforce the law. If the EPA gets involved, that can only be for the good."

Rick Handshoe, member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, lives near a mountaintop removal mine. He says the dust stirred up by the operation is a major problem for him. The mining operation is also ruining what he calls a 'sponge effect' that streams in his area have, in which rain and snow are collected by those streams and then released over time to cities like Lexington and Frankfort.

"When we get rain, it just runs off and runs down and it's gone. Last year, Lexington was in a water crisis. Why? You took the sponge away."

Enforcement of existing laws is also an issue, he adds.

"Enforcement here has been a real problem. If nobody complains, then they don't care what goes on."

Opponents of mountain-top removal argue the process hurts streams, which ultimately carry water laden with iron, selenium and other chemicals to surrounding communities, including the cities downstream. The Kentucky Coal Association argues the EPA is using vague water standards to suggest that mines are violating the Clean Water Act. Coal companies say affected valleys can be reclaimed and redeveloped for future uses.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV