June 13, 2009

While the corporate media is praising Obama's announcement yesterday to more stringently monitor mountaintop mining, those involved in fighting the massive pollution that results from the practice say it's nowhere near enough. One group's attorney called it "rearranging the bureaucratic deck chairs." (Remember how Obama kept talking about "clean coal"? This is what it looks like, folks: powerful poison dumped into people's lives.)

Friday morning, this terrible news:

Just how bad has the coal ash situation gotten in the United States? So bad that the Department of Homeland Security has told Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) that her committee can't publicly disclose the location of coal ash dumps across the country.

The pollution is so toxic, so dangerous, that an enemy of the United States -- or a storm or some other disrupting event -- could easily cause them to spill out and lay waste to any area nearby.

And yet, for some reason, it's perfectly fine when mining companies do it! Hey, how about that "clean coal"?

There are 44 sites deemed by the Environmental Protection Agency to be high hazard, but Boxer said she isn't allowed to talk about them other than to senators in the states affected. "There is a huge muzzle on me and my staff," she said.

In other words, this is a very urgent problem. Activists say all Obama has to do is enforce the Clean Water Act that already exists.

If the Obama administration wants to protect the people and mountains of Appalachia, it needs to end the destructive practice of mountaintop mining, not settle for promises of stricter scrutiny of the mining permits, advocates say.

[...] The White House announced what it described as an “unprecedented” agreement among the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Interior Department to better coordinate and tighten the agencies’ oversight of mountaintop mining and to review the mining existing laws.

In a memorandum of understanding, the agencies promised to:

    • Require more stringent environmental reviews for future mountaintop mining permits, including using the Clean Water Act to reduce contamination in streams and watersheds;

    • Propose a rule change to stop allowing a type of nationwide permit that doesn’t require site-specific reviews for mining operations to dump the mineral-laden debris of former mountaintops into streams;

    • Strengthen oversight of state agencies, both in their permitting and enforcement;

    • And, if the U.S. District Court vacates the Bush administration’s 2008 Stream Buffer Zone Rule as requested, return to the 1983 rules restoring the 100-foot buffer zone around streams for mining waste.

These are all steps in the right direction, but they aren’t enough, says Willa Mays, Executive Director of Appalachian Voices:

"Their priorities do not take into account that mountains are being blown up today, and until mountaintop removal coal mining is ended, residents will continue to suffer from high disease rates, floods, and poisoned water supplies directly attributable to this mining practice."

Advocates across Appalachia echoed her concern.

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth member Teri Blanton:

“It’s always a good thing to protect people and water, but this announcement is not an end to mountaintop removal. As Wendell Berry has stated, you can’t regulate an abomination.”

Coal River Mountain Watch Co-Director Vernon Haltom:

"Without a significant change in policy, mining companies will continue to destroy our mountains and bury our streams on the Obama administration’s watch. They need to put a stop to this, and they’re not doing so."

Kentucky Waterways Alliance Executive Director Judith Petersen:

"By moving to end the Nationwide Permit, the administration is making it harder for coal companies to bury streams and promising tougher enforcement. But we believe that if fully enforced, the Clean Water Act would prohibit filling streams with mining waste, making mountaintop removal coal mining nearly impossible."

In the coal-rich mountains stretching from West Virginia to Tennessee, mining companies have flattened more than 1 million acres of Appalachia by razing the trees and then blowing off the mountaintops to get at the coal seams.

Their practice of pushing the mountaintop “overburden” into the neighboring valleys has filled more than 700 miles of streams and degraded hundreds of miles more with traces of nickel, lead, cadmium, iron and selenium. Residents describe how changes to the terrain have exacerbated flooding, and the heavy metals that leach into the streams have poisoned their wells, fish and wildlife.

Two bills currently in Congress would begin to tackle the problem by expressly prohibiting coal companies from dumping their mining waste in streams. Versions of the Clean Water Protection Act in the House and the Appalachian Restoration Act in the Senate were first offered in 2002. So far, though, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have failed to pass them.

The White House doesn’t have to wait for Congress to act, says EarthJustice legislative council Joan Mulhern:

"The Obama administration could easily change the regulations back to restore longstanding prohibitions on burying streams and rivers with waste, but they seem to be hiding behind an excuse that their hands are tied." She described the administration’s announcement today as mostly “rearranging the bureaucratic deck chairs.”

“If the Clean Water Act were enforced, it would prohibit this type of stream destruction.”

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