Skip to content Skip to left sidebar Skip to right sidebar Skip to footer

Relief for Appalachia’s mountains

Good news for Appalachia’s mountains and forests, the water-bearing strata under them and creeks and streams that spring from them! On June 17, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced a suspension of the fast-track permitting system under which stream valleys had become the de facto “landfill” sites for overburden rubble from mountaintop mining.
In Knoxville and other towns in the region, when the Corps held public hearings last fall on proposed modifications to this (Nationwide Permit 21) system, thousands of industry-organized coal supporters shouted down and threatened citizens who wished to speak out against the practice of mountaintop removal. The streamlined, nationwide permit, in existence since 1982 and reissued every five years since, had been intended to be used only when environmental effects were “minimal.” Yet as the dynamite-blasting way of coal mining grew exponentially, it inflicted a heavy toll. Thousands of stream miles were permanently buried, thousands more polluted through acid drainage, silt, selenium and other toxic chemicals. Hundreds of fish species, the US Fish and Wildlife Service estimated, were being harmed by the pollution and loss of streams and forest habitat.
In 1999, a federal court sided with citizen groups which accused federal agencies of violating the Clean Water Act by granting permits sanctioning stream burial. The citizen suit and court’s affirmative ruling hinged on a little-known clause in the Act’s regulations. The Army Corps, responsible for permit approval for most construction projects that involve alterations to wetlands and streams could let clean “fill” material be placed in waterways for certain purposes, but the regulations disallowed the dumping of (mining or other) waste into these.
Under the Bush administration, which had appointed a coal industry lobbyist to head the minerals management division at Interior, those regulations were to change. As the Washington Post reported in 2004, following a “specific pledge” by the new administrator to “fix federal rules on water and spoil placement,” May 2002 saw the fill rule officially revised to make disposal of various wastes in water bodies, in particular mountaintop removal overburden, a legal activity. Predictably, coal extraction via mountaintop removal expanded in the region. According to the Lindquist-Environmental Appalachian Fellowship, a religious environmental group, even Tennessee had almost 20 active or planned such mining sites by 2008 (and almost eighty more potential sites identified for future permit application). Predictable also was further, pervasive and long lasting damage to the region’s natural resources, its scenic landscape, and its mountain communities.
With the nationwide permits suspended, coal companies must now apply for individual permits in which local topography, water and other resources are considered in publicly accessible, transparent process. The individual-permit mandate represents another, encouraging step by the current administration to limit this damaging form of coal mining. It should further, one might hope, end altogether the Bush era policy of letting streams be legally buried under the waste from formerly green mountain peaks.
The Congressional bill sponsored by Senator Lamar Alexander (Appalachia Restoration Act), too, should come to pass as another, positive step in this direction.