Mountaintop mining guidelines to protect watersheds

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The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced a set of actions to clarify and strengthen environmental requirements for Appalachian mountaintop removal and other surface coal mining projects. The aim is to prevent significant and irreversible damage to Appalachian watersheds at risk from mining activity.

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

'The people of Appalachia shouldn't have to choose between a clean, healthy environment in which to raise their families and the jobs they need to support them. That's why EPA is providing even greater clarity on the direction the agency is taking to confront pollution from mountain top removal,' said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. 'We will continue to work with all stakeholders to find a way forward that follows the science and the law. 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.'

EPA is communicating comprehensive guidance to its regional offices with permitting responsibility in Appalachian states. The guidance clarifies existing requirements of the Section 402 and 404 Clean Water Act permitting programs that apply to pollution from surface coal mining operations in streams and wetlands. The guidance details EPA's responsibilities and how the agency uses its Clean Water Act (CWA) authorities to ensure that future mining will not cause significant environmental, water quality and human health impacts. EPA also expects this information will provide improved consistency and predictability in the CWA permitting process and help to strengthen coordination with other federal and state regulatory agencies and mining companies.

EPA is making publicly available two scientific reports prepared by its Office of Research and Development (ORD). One summarises the aquatic impacts of mountaintop mining and valley fills. The second report establishes a scientific benchmark for unacceptable levels of conductivity (a measure of water pollution from mining practices) that threaten stream life in surface waters. These reports are being published for public comment and submitted for peer review to the EPA Science Advisory Board.

A growing body of scientific literature, including previous and new studies performed by EPA, show significant damage to local streams that are polluted with the mining runoff from mountaintop removal. To protect water quality, EPA has identified a range of conductivity (a measure of the level of salt in the water) of 300 to 500 microSiemens per centimetre. The maximum benchmark conductivity of 500 microSiemens per centimetre is a measure of salinity that is roughly five times above normal levels. The conductivity levels identified in the clarifying guidance are intended to protect 95% of aquatic life and freshwater streams in central Appalachia.

EPA will solicit public comments on the new guidance. The guidance will be effective immediately on an interim basis. EPA will decide whether to modify the guidance after consideration of public comments and the results of the SAB technical review of the EPA scientific reports.

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