Obama Admin Ends MTR Mining With A Name Change

by Patriot Daily News

The Obama administration is at least testing the waters of changing the name of mountaintop removal mining to “Appalachian surface coal mining” or ASCM. This name change, which neutralizes the horrific visuals of mountaintop removal mining, may help President Obama gain support for a new policy to reduce rather than eliminate the harmful environmental impacts of blowing apart ancient mountaintops and discharging that mining waste into streams, suffocating both the stream and aquatic life.

It is undeniable that the Obama administration is taking steps that are a
“firm departure” from President Bush who “failed to protect our communities, water, and wildlife in Appalachia.” For the first time, the government is acknowledging the adverse impacts of MTR mining, but surpassing President Bush on environmental issues is a rather low bar.

The question for President Obama is whether mountaintop removal mining (or MTR mining) should be limited to a policy of environmental impact relativity or should our policy be the elimination of MTR mining in obvious recognition that by definition it violates the environmental rules of law?

This month the Obama administration announced a Memorandum of Understanding executed by the Department of the Army, Interior Department and EPA for “Implementing the Interagency Action Plan” on
“Appalachian Surface Coal Mining” (pdf file). In a conference call with members of the press, officials from the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), Environmental Protection Agency, Department of the Interior, and Corps of Engineers explained that the administration’s goal is not to end MTR, but to try to “significantly reduce the ‘harmful environmental consequences of Appalachian surface coal mining operations, while ensuring that future mining remains consistent with federal law.’”

A first step toward consistency with federal law is to recognize that the appropriate legal terminology is “mountaintop removal mining,” or MTR mining, not ASCM.

While there is no statutory definition of mountaintop removal, there is a
regulatory definition:

§ 785.14 Mountaintop removal mining.
(b) Mountaintop removal mining means surface mining activities, where the mining operation removes an entire coal seam or seams running through the upper fraction of a mountain, ridge, or hill, except as provided for in 30 CFR 824.11(a)(6), by removing substantially all of the overburden off the bench and creating a level plateau or a gently rolling contour, with no highwalls remaining, and capable of supporting postmining land uses in accordance with the requirements of this section. [30 CFR 785.14(b)]
Consistent with this federal rule, Congress, federal law (pdf file) and the courts (pdf file) use mountaintop removal mining, not ASCM.

Changing the name from mountaintop removal mining to ASCM may be one means for President Obama to move forward with a new policy rather than being restricted by the stranglehold of past unlawful actions by the Bush administration. A euphemism of ASCM is also a means to disassociate his regulatory approach from the negative perceptions and visualizations of mining that removes mountaintops. As the CRS acknowledged,
the name alone describes the environmental devastation caused by MTR mining (pdf file):
As its name suggests, mountaintop removal mining involves removing the top of a mountain in order to recover the coal seams contained in the mountain. Explosives are used to break the mountain’s rock, and massive earth-moving equipment, often including equipment called draglines, removes the spoil, i.e., the dirt and rock that composed the mountaintop over or between the coal seams. While federal law calls for excess spoil to be placed back in the mined areas — returning the lands to their approximate original contour (AOC) — that result ordinarily cannot be accomplished with mountaintop mining because broken rock takes up more volume than did the rock prior to mining and because there are stability concerns with the spoil pile. Mountaintop removal creates an immense quantity of excess spoil, which is typically placed in valley fills on the sides of the former mountains. One consequence is that streams flowing through the valleys are buried.
This video shows the use of bombs to blow apart the mountaintops:

It will be difficult for President Obama to argue that his policy of simply reducing environmental impacts is sufficient when the name of mountaintop removal mining alone highlights the enormity of the destruction.

The Obama administration also wants to regulate MTR mining “consistent with federal law.” One problem is that our federal laws did not allow MTR mining, so President Bush changed the laws to legalize what previously had been unlawful. Thus, consistency with federal law now means consistency with President Bush’s laws. As stated by White House CEQ Chair Nancy Sutley,
MTR is “allowed under current federal law.”

President Bush changed two rules in order to legalize the MTR mining that was unlawful when authorized by his administration. President Obama could restore the original meaning of both these rules (the fill material rule and stream buffer rule) that prohibited the practice of dumping mining waste into our streams and lakes as a cheap means of disposal. And, the federal reclamation laws that require restoration of mined lands to original contours could “end the absurd fiction that extraction pits filled with unconsolidated rocks and rubble where trees will never grow and streams will never flow are ‘reclaimed.’"

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. also discussed how
enforcement of existing laws would preclude MTR mining.
Fourth, current law forbids the issuance of "fill" permits that will cause "significant degradation" to waterways. It is absurd for the Army Corps of Engineers to endorse the canard that filling miles of streams is not causing significant degradation. The president should require the Corps to deny and rescind permits where operations will cause downstream damage.

Fifth, the Clean Water Act requires mining operators to prove that they can restore the "function and structure" of affected streams. Operators have never been compelled to make the functional or structural analyses of the aquatic ecosystem required by the act. Obama should order his officials to stop ignoring this requirement.

Sixth, the administration should enforce the law requiring an environmental impact study for each permit when a mine "may have significant environmental impacts," individually or cumulatively. The Corps of Engineers routinely allows coal operators to escape this mandate -- an illegal practice that should stop.
Yet, Obama administration officials “indicated last month that they will allow more than 100 permits to go forward while they carefully review their regulatory options.” Indeed, White House CEQ Chair Sutley stated the new approach is “a more environmentally tough review” using standards similar to a recent review of 48 MTR permit applications in which the EPA found “no significant problems with 42 of the applications, but it rejected six as too damaging.”

A goal of reducing environmental impacts is meaningless relativity when the inherent nature of MTR mining simply renders the practice inconsistent with the express and implied spirit and intent of federal laws.

It is not good enough to simply reduce the impacts of clear-cutting biologically diverse “miniature rain forests”. The climate change impacts alone violate President Obama’s plans to address global warming. Hardwood forests that are the “carbon sinks and lungs of the East Coast” are destroyed and this deforestation can add “as much as 138 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.” If we don’t stop, an EPA report estimates that an area
twice the size of Rhode Island will be eliminated by 2012.

It is not good enough to simply reduce the impacts of using bombs to decapitate mountaintops of chains that have existed for millions of years. As Robert F. Kennedy Jr. noted, “[m]ining syndicates are
detonating 2,500 tons of explosives each day -- the equivalent of a Hiroshima bomb weekly -- to blow up Appalachia's mountains and extract sub-surface coal seams.” Approximately a million acres, or 500 mountains, have already been destroyed in the name of reaping more profits for mining companies.

It is not good enough to simply reduce the impacts of allowing mining companies to use our streams and lakes as waste dumpsites to avoid paying for waste disposal of the pieces that formerly comprised the mountaintop. All that blasted mountaintop is then dumped into the valleys. As documented in a CRS Report for Congress (pdf file), one valley fill may be “over 1,000 feet wide and over a mile long.” Mining companies first dumped waste in ephemeral streams with intermittent flow from rain. Having "exhausted” the supply of smaller streams, the mining companies now dispose waste in any stream:
[In 2005,] the volume of a single stream fill can be as much as 250 million cubic yards. As a result, streams are eliminated, stream chemistry is harmed by pollutants in the mining overburden, and downstream aquatic life is impaired. From 1985 to 2001, an estimated 724 stream miles in West Virginia, Kentucky, and parts of Virginia and Tennessee were covered by valley fills and 1,200 miles of headwater streams were directly impacted by mountaintop mining activities.
The science is clear:
[T]his practice devastates ecosystems, obliterates streams, and pollutes water supplies. Searching for environmentally acceptable mountaintop removal, which the administration has not ruled out, is futile. This administration promised a science-based environmental policy, which is impossible to square with mountaintop removal.
As Daily Kos Contributing Editor Devilstower says, Mr. President, go and see for yourself, the destruction and devastation to people and environmental resources is too grave to just apply a band-aid of simply reducing environmental and public health impacts of MTR mining.

If President Obama wants a preview, these videos provide a mini aerial tour of the significant, deleterious impacts of MTR mining:

Devilstower offers 2 easy take action items to encourage President Obama to visit the communities devastated by MTR mining:
Go to Twitter and send this message:
President Obama. Go to West Virginia. See for yourself what Mountaintop Removal is doing to the land, water, and people. #mtr
If you don't use Twitter, put it on your Facebook wall. If you don't use Facebook, use your blog site, or a diary on another site, or send it in email. Do all of the above. Get the message out there. Want a quick solution? [Send an email at the] Try the Help President Obama See the Truth About Mountaintop Removal page from the Rainforest Action Network.
Labels: Business, , , , Mountain Top Removal, Politics