Senate Bill to Protect Streams from Mountaintop Mining

U.S. Sens. Benjamin Carden (D-Md.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), both from coal-producing states, on March 25 introduced bipartisan legislation that would protect Appalachia from mountaintop removal coal mining.

The Appalachia Restoration Act (S 696) would amend the Clean Water Act to prevent the dumping of toxic mining waste from mountaintop removal coal mining into headwater streams and rivers.

“My goal is to put a stop to one of the most destructive mining practices that has already destroyed some of America’s most beautiful and ecologically significant regions,” said Cardin, chair of the Water and Wildlife Subcommittee of the Committee on Environment and Public Works. “This legislation will put a stop to the smothering of our nation’s streams and water systems and will restore the Clean Water Act to its original intent.”

Mountaintop removal coal mining uses explosives to blast up to 1000 feet of mountaintop in order to reach the coal. The remaining rubble, or overburden—which contains toxic heavy metals—is dumped into adjacent valleys, contaminating headwater streams where drinking water supplies originate for millions of Americans.

"It is not necessary to destroy our mountaintops in order to have enough coal,” said Alexander.

The bill is a companion to the Clean Water Protection Act (HR 1310) currently in the U.S. House of Representatives. The House bill was introduced March 4 by Congressman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) along with Congressmen Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) and John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), and currently has 134 bipartisan co-sponsors.

Employment in coal has been on a downward trajectory for decades. In West Virginia alone, coal mining once provided over 120,000 jobs, but that number has dropped to less than 20,000. Even traditional underground mining provides far more jobs than mountaintop removal coal mining.

"This is not an either/or choice, it's about saving the environment and creating new jobs," said Matthew Wasson, Ph.D., director of Programs at the environmental non-profit group Appalachian Voices.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, counties with a high concentration of mountaintop removal mines are some of the most impoverished in the United States.