EPA to Protect Water Quality in Appalachian Communities from Mountaintop Mining

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released final guidance on Appalachian surface coal mining, designed to ensure more consistent, effective, and timely review of surface coal mining permits under the Clean Water Act and other statutes. The guidance, which replaces the interim-final guidance issued by EPA on April 1, 2010, is based on the best-available science and incorporates input and feedback from over 60,000 comments received from the public and key stakeholders. By providing EPA’s regional offices with the latest information on existing legal requirements, the guidance enables them to work together with states, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, mining companies, and the public toward a balanced approach that protects communities from harmful pollution associated with coal mining. EPA will apply the guidance flexibly, taking into account site-specific information and additional science to arrive at the best decisions on a case-by-case basis.

The science forming the basis for the interim-final guidance was also successfully applied in a number of mining decisions, including the Hobet 45 permit in West Virginia where EPA worked closely with a company to eliminate nearly 50 percent of their stream impacts, reduce contamination and lower mining costs. Successful outcomes resulting from the Corps' Coal Mac-Pine Creek permit decision also provide evidence that the practices in the interim guidance are both feasible and effective.

“Under this guidance, EPA will continue to work with other federal agencies, states, local communities, and companies to design mining operations that adequately protect our nation’s waters and people's health,” said Nancy Stoner, acting assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Water. “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.”

EPA’s final guidance reflects significantly enhanced science, extensive public comment and experience working with federal and state agencies and mining companies. It is based on improved, peer-reviewed science on impacts of mountaintop mining; extensive public and stakeholder input; and, lessons learned from the implementation of the interim guidance. The final guidance, like the interim guidance, is not a rule and is not binding legally or in practice.

EPA is committed to working with coal companies and stakeholders to reduce and prevent harm to water quality and human health. Over the past two and a half years, EPA has built a strong foundation, working with federal and state agencies and mining companies to significantly reduce impacts to the environment.

• In January 2010, EPA worked with the Corps on the Hobet 45 permit in West Virginia to reduce stream impacts by almost 50 percent and minimize mine runoff into surface waters.

• In June 2010, EPA worked to ensure that the permit issued for the Pine Creek mine included an enforceable trigger for protecting downstream water quality and ensuring that the overall mining operation could protect water quality.

• In July 2011, EPA worked with Mid-Vol, Inc. and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to develop a Clean Water Act Section 402 permit that includes limits on ionic pollution to protect water quality.    

Mountaintop mining is a form of surface coal mining in which explosives are used to access coal seams, generating large volumes of waste that bury adjacent streams. The resulting waste that then fills valleys and streams can significantly compromise water quality, often causing permanent damage to ecosystems and rendering streams unfit for drinking, fishing, and swimming. It is estimated that almost 2,000 miles of Appalachian headwater streams have been buried by mountaintop coal mining.