Friday, April 2, 2010

New Rules on Water Pollution from Mountaintop Mining

The EPA announced yesterday (here) a new guidance on water pollution from the environmentally destructive practice of mountaintop mining (about which I've previously blogged here), which supplies approximately 10 percent of the nation's coal. According to EPA's news release:
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. 
The Washington Post reports (here) that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson believes that very few, if any, mountaintop removal mining operations will be able to meet the new standards. The guidance takes effect immediately on an interim basis, and will be amended as necessary or finalized after a public review and comment period. The complete text of the guidance can be read here.

Along with the guidance document, EPA released a scientific report detailing the aquatic damage caused by mountaintop mining. That report detailed several findings, including:
- Burial of headwater streams by valley fills causes permanent loss of ecosystems.

- Concentrations of salts as measured by conductivity are, on average, 10 times higher downstream of mountaintop mines and valley fills than in un-mined watersheds.

- The increased levels of salts disrupt the life cycle of freshwater aquatic organisms and some cannot live in these waters.

- Water with high salt concentrations downstream of mountaintop mines and valley fills is toxic to stream organisms.

- To date, there is no evidence that streams that undergo a restoration process have returned to their normal ecological functions after the mining is completed.
EPA's new guidance is very welcome news for several reasons. First, it is likely to reduce, if not eliminate, the atrocious practice of mountaintop removal mining. Second, by doing so, water quality will be better protected in Appalachian regions. Third, to the extent it reduces the coal supply, it will raise the cost of coal (still nowhere near social-cost levels). As I've said many times before, increasing fossil-fuel prices is a prerequisite to resolving the climate change problem. The government must, of course, deal with the regressive effects of tax- or quantity-based regulations that increase fossil-fuel prices, but it's not clear how much effect this particular regulation will have on coal prices.

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