By Patrick Crow, Washington Correspondent
The Environmental Protection Agency has approved a controversial permit - with water policy implications - for a West Virginia mountaintop removal coal mine.
The permit now goes to the Army Corps of Engineers, which has final authority (see Sept.-Oct. column). The Obama administration has been wrestling with the issue of mountaintop mining’s impact on water quality.
EPA said it supports a Clean Water Act permit for the Hobet 45 mine in Lincoln County after Hobet Mining LLC had agreed to additional significant protections against environmental impacts.
The revised permit for the mine (which would employ 460 persons) would reduce stream impacts by more than 16,000 linear feet, direct contaminated mine drainage away from surface waters, and include more compensation for environmental losses.
The agency also said it has extended talks with Mingo Logan Mining Co. regarding environmental and water quality concerns about its Spruce No. 1 mine in Logan County. No additional mining will occur while talks are ongoing.
EPA said the Spruce No. 1 would be one of the largest mountaintop removal mines ever proposed in Appalachia. It would clear more than 2,200 acres of forestlands, bury more than seven miles of headwater streams, and contaminate downstream waters already heavily impacted by previous mining activities.
Citizen lawsuits have delayed the mine more than 10 years. The current Clean Water Act permit for the mine has been held up in federal court since it was issued in 2007.
EPA said Appalachian coal mining has buried an estimated 2,000 miles of streams in states including West Virginia. It said that scientific studies have increasingly identified significant water quality problems below surface coal mining operations that can contaminate surface waters for hundreds of years.
The Sierra Club urged the Obama Administration to begin a rulemaking to exclude mining waste from the definition of “fill” as a material that can be dumped in streams.
Meanwhile, more than 120 groups have urged EPA to adopt strong, federally enforceable safeguards for coal ash disposal.
EPA is working on such a regulation for coal ash, the waste produced from burning coal for electricity.
The action came on the one-year anniversary of the December 2009 spill of more than a billion gallons of coal ash near Harrimon, Tenn. The spill occurred after a dam failed and coal ash sludge was released from a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant retaining pond.
Cleanup of the spill is continuing. It is not expected to be completed until 2013. Estimated cost is more than $1 billion.
The Sierra Club said adequate federal protections could have prevented the mishap. It said, “There are hundreds more coal ash sites nationwide whose failure may lead to an even greater disaster than happened last December in Tennessee.
“The arsenic, lead, mercury and selenium that Harriman (Tenn.) residents have been exposed to, and the millions of dollars spent so far on clean up, remind us that coal is not clean, or cheap,” it said.
The issue of drinking water pollution from coal ash disposal was explored at a House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment hearing in December.
Lisa Evans, with the Earthjustice legal firm, said improper disposal of coal ash poses a deadly, pervasive and increasing threat to the environment.
She said coal ash contains concentrated toxic elements such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, selenium, and thallium.
“It is not the mere presence of these dangerous toxins in ash that pose the threat - it is their propensity to leave the ash when the waste comes into contact with water,” she said.
Evans said EPA should regulate coal ash in landfills as a hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), not as a non-hazardous solid waste.
She said, “Enforceable minimum waste management requirements for dry disposal of coal ash in landfills should include siting restrictions, liners, groundwater monitoring, leachate collection, and financial assurance, closure requirements, post-closure care, and corrective action.”
Evans said EPA should phase-out the use of coal ash surface impoundments (waste ponds) at existing coal-fired plants and ban them at new plants. She said it also should prohibit coal ash disposal in sand and gravel pits.
Ken Ladwig, a project manager with the independent Electric Power Research Institute, said the U.S. electric utility industry burns more than 1 billion tons of coal annually, producing 125 million tons of residues - of which 92 million tons are coal ash.
He said most environmental problems with coal ash storage predate RCRA landfill regulations.
“Most cases (90%) do not have liners or only have liners in newer cells, and most (98%) do not have leachate collection systems in all cells,” he said.
Ladwig said any EPA coal ash regulation would alter the technology and economics of coal-fired power plants -- forcing some of them to close.
“Since coal-fired generation accounts for almost half of all the electricity generated in the U.S., this could have significant financial and reliability impacts,” he said.