The EPA set new water-quality standards for surface coal mining in central Appalachia that Administrator Lisa Jackson said would likely block mountaintop-removal projects from dumping wastes in streams.
"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," she said. "This is not about ending coal mining, it is about ending coal mining pollution."
The guidance sets the first-ever numeric water standards for conductivity — a measure of the level of salt — in streams near surface coal mines and is intended to protect 95 percent of the region's aquatic life and freshwater streams, the agency said.
To qualify for a Clean Water Act permit, mining companies must show their proposed project will leave streams with conductivity measured at no more than 500 microsiemens per centimeter, a measure of salinity that EPA said is roughly five times above normal levels.
There are "no or very few valley fills that are going to meet this standard," Jackson told reporters in a conference call. "Valley fill" refers to the practice of dumping waste from mines into nearby valleys. Mining operations have buried nearly 2,000 miles of Appalachian headwater streams, the agency said.
"We expect this guideline to change behaviors, to change actions," Jackson said. "Because if we keep doing what we have been doing, we'll continue to see degradation of water quality."
The standards were prompted by a growing body of research indicating surface mining is damaging Appalachia's environment and public health, Jackson said.
EPA today also released two draft studies, one documenting the adverse effects on aquatic ecosystems of pollutant levels associated with high conductivity. Conductivity levels are on average 10 times higher downstream from mountaintop mines and valley fills than in unmined watersheds, the draft concludes. The new regulations are effective immediately on an interim basis while EPA takes public comment and considers revisions. The regulations do not apply retroactively to existing Clean Water Act permits, but they will be applied to the nearly 80 permits that EPA last year held for "enhanced review," Jackson said. Jackson said the new guidelines apply for now only to surface mines in central Appalachia because that is where the data they are based on were gathered, but she said the science could eventually compel the agency to consider conductivity standards for waters surrounding underground mines, as well.
West Virginia's senior U.S. senator, Democrat Robert Byrd, praised EPA's action. "I am pleased that EPA Administrator Jackson took our concerns about the need to provide clarity very seriously and has responded with these guidelines," he said in a statement. "Today's announcement will hopefully now have everyone reading off the same page."
Environmental groups called the standards a major and much-needed crackdown on coal-mining pollution. "The new policy represents the most significant administrative action ever taken to address mountaintop-removal coal mining," said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune. "Today's announcement reaffirms the Obama administration's commitment to science and to environmental justice for the communities and natural areas of Appalachia."