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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Statement on the Issuance of Further Guidance on Mountaintop Mining, As Prepared

04/01/2010
As prepared for delivery.

As most of you know, we’ve spent a significant portion of our time in the last 15 months addressing issues around surface coal mining. There are strong views on all sides of this debate and we’ve worked hard to reach out to all stakeholders. One point I have emphasized is EPA’s responsibility under the Clean Water Act – and we are unequivocally committed to fulfilling that responsibility with regard to mountaintop mining. We believe that this principle has been consistently applied in our review of all surface coal mining permits. But we want to be clear and consistent in the expectations and guideposts we communicate to the states, the industry and members of the public affected by our permitting actions.

Accordingly, EPA is today issuing further guidance to our Regional Offices in Appalachian states to clarify the Clean Water Act standards that apply to surface coal mining projects. This additional guidance is comprehensive. It explains the yardsticks EPA will use to assure that mountaintop mining permits fully protect local waters and coalfield communities. It also describes the information we need to evaluate these permits and the changes in mining practices and operations that we believe will reduce the impacts of potentially harmful projects. We’re issuing this guidance in response to requests from leaders like Senator Byrd. In our conversations and his public statements, Senator Byrd has often spoken about providing a clearer path for the future of coal – a path that ensures the health and prosperity of his constituents, and the energy future for our nation. The steps we’re taking today will help outline that clearer path.

The underpinning for the guidance is a growing body of science demonstrating that degradation of ecosystems in Appalachian states is being caused by mountaintop mining. There is a considerable peer-reviewed data on this subject – much of it generated by EPA scientists – but we are releasing two additional studies from our Office of research and Development that examine the impacts of mountaintop removal projects. The first study, a Mountaintop Mining Valley Fills Impact Report, compiles peer-reviewed literature on the water quality impairments from valley fills and mining pollution. The second piece, a field study based on more than 2,000 stream samples collected in West Virginia, was used to set benchmarks for conductivity – or the amount of salinity in the water – that will be protective of water quality and streamlife. The science in this report, together with existing studies, supports our determination that conductivity levels above 500 micro Siemens per cubic centimeter are not protective. We will be using a range of 300-500 Siemens per cubic centimeter to guide our review of permits under Sections 402 and 404 of the Clean Water Act. For those of you without degrees in chemistry, the important thing to note is that this benchmark prevents irreversible damage to the physical and biological integrity of Appalachian streams, and protects 95 percent of aquatic organisms living in them. This is a clear statement of where EPA stands, and what we expect from any mining projects going forward.

We are making our guidance available for public comment while we implement it. We are also requesting comment on the two scientific reports and submitting them to our Science Advisory Board for peer review. I’m also pleased to report that the Corps of Engineers is separately announcing a rulemaking to expand the scope of its review of mountaintop mining permits under the National Environmental Policy Act. EPA is very supportive and this efforts and plans to be working closely with the Corp.

Let me add that – although our studies are focused on the environmental impacts of surface coal mining – we are deeply concerned about the emerging evidence of the potential health impacts. This is an area that deserves more analysis. Recent studies have traced the links between mountaintop mining and the presence of dangerous contaminants, carcinogens and other pollution in water that is used for drinking, swimming, and fishing. It is our hope that this further guidance will prevent both the short and long-term environmental impacts of mountaintop mining, and serve to mitigate any possible associated health risks.

This is a step in an ongoing process. In recent months we have engaged in dialogue with several companies about the future of mining operations. By working with the Hobet 45 operators in West Virginia, we were able to find a way forward that permanently protects streams, maximizes coal recovery and reduces costs. In this case the Appalachian community didn’t have to make the false choice between their jobs and their environment. Hobet has no valley fills and reduces stream impact by almost 50 percent. In another example, last week EPA proposed to significantly limit or prohibit activity at the Spruce 1 mine – a project that has been held up in litigation for years. After repeated attempts at dialogue with the operators, we were unable to find an acceptable solution. The Spruce mine as proposed would bury over 7 miles of headwater streams; directly impact 2,278 acres of forestland; and degrade water quality in streams adjacent to the mine. We could not, under the law, accept such significant and irreversible damage to the area’s water quality and environmental resources.

We will continue to work closely with all stakeholders involved in what we view as an important environmental, public health, and economic issue. We believe that further guidance will help resolve years of litigation and gridlock and ensure that any and all mining projects meet the standards established by science and the law. Let me be clear: this is not about ending coal mining. This is about ending coal mining pollution. Coal communities should not have to sacrifice their environment, or their health, or their economic future to mountaintop mining. They deserve the full protection of our Clean Water laws.

Let me close by saying that today's announcement is one page of the comprehensive energy reform playbook. Earlier today, I was proud to help announce the finalization of our clean cars program – one of the many steps we are taking to reduce pollution, cut costs through efficiency, and establish our energy independence. Clean coal is an important part of our energy future. Yesterday the President said that we must “harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy.” And we are moving in that direction. President Obama recently named EPA co-chair of a taskforce on Carbon Capture and Storage. That group is exploring strategies to use coal without further polluting our air and advancing climate change. But we need to look at the full lifecycle of coal – from extraction to incineration. Sustainable mining practices will help increase our national energy independence without causing significant and irreversible damage to local communities. Getting this right is important to Americans who rely on affordable coal to power homes and businesses, as well as coal communities that count on jobs and a livable environment, both during mining and after coal companies move to other sites. Today’s guidance will provide the clarity and protection required to safeguard all of those interests. Thank you very much.