Obama Admin Ends MTR Mining With A Name Change

(1:00PM EST – promoted by Nightprowlkitty)

The Obama administration is at least testing the waters of changing the name of mountaintop removal mining to “Appalachian surface coal mining” or ASCM.  This name change, which neutralizes the horrific visuals of MTR mining, may help Obama gain support for a new policy to reduce the harmful environmental impacts of MTR mining.  

The Obama administration is taking steps that are a “firm departure” from Bush who “failed to protect our communities, water, and wildlife in Appalachia.”  For the first time the government is acknowledging the adverse impacts of MTR mining and will, for example, review the “cumulative impact of valley fill permits on water quality and look at entire watersheds instead of isolated streams.”

However, the question is whether MTR mining should be limited to a policy of environmental impact relativity or do we insist that MTR mining be stopped in obvious recognition that MTR mining by definition violates the environmental rules of law?  

Changing the name from mountaintop removal mining to ASCM is one means of moving forward with a new policy rather than being restricted by the stranglehold of past Bush illegal actions.  The administration announced a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) executed by the Department of the Army, Interior Department and EPA for “Implementing the Interagency Action Plan” or IAP on “Appalachian Surface Coal Mining” (pdf file).  

In a conference call with members of the press, officials from CEQ, EPA, DOI and Corps explained that the administration’s goal is not to end MTR, but to try to “significantly reduce the ‘harmful environmental consequences of Appalachian surface coal mining operations, while ensuring that future mining remains consistent with federal law.'”

A first step toward consistency with federal law is to recognize that the appropriate legal terminology is “mountaintop removal mining,” or MTR mining, not ASCM.

While there is no statutory definition of mountaintop removal, there is a regulatory definition:

ยง 785.14 Mountaintop removal mining.

(b) Mountaintop removal mining means surface mining activities, where the mining operation removes an entire coal seam or seams running through the upper fraction of a mountain, ridge, or hill, except as provided for in 30 CFR 824.11(a)(6), by removing substantially all of the overburden off the bench and creating a level plateau or a gently rolling contour, with no highwalls remaining, and capable of supporting postmining land uses in accordance with the requirements of this section. [30 CFR 785.14(b)]

Consistent with this federal rule,  Congress, federal law (pdf file) and the courts (pdf file) use mountaintop removal mining, not ASCM.

Obama may prefer to use the euphemism of ASCM to disassociate his regulatory approach from the negative perceptions and visualizations of mining that removes mountaintops. As the CRS acknowledged, the name alone describes the environmental devastation caused by MTR mining (pdf file):

As its name suggests, mountaintop removal mining involves removing the top of a mountain in order to recover the coal seams contained in the mountain.  Explosives are used to break the mountain’s rock, and massive earth-moving equipment, often including equipment called draglines, removes the spoil, i.e., the dirt and rock that composed the mountaintop over or between the coal seams.  While federal law calls for excess spoil to be placed back in the mined areas – returning the lands to their approximate original contour (AOC) – that result ordinarily cannot be accomplished with mountaintop mining because broken rock takes up more volume than did the rock prior to mining and because there are stability concerns with the spoil pile.  Mountaintop removal creates an immense quantity of excess spoil, which is typically placed in valley fills on the sides of the former mountains.  One consequence is that streams flowing through the valleys are buried.

The Obama administration wants to regulate MTR mining “consistent with federal law.” One problem is that our federal laws did not allow MTR mining, so Bush changed the laws to legalize what previously had been illegal. Thus, consistency with federal law now means consistency with Bush’s laws. As stated by Nancy Sutley, chair of White House Council on Environmental Quality, MTR is “allowed under current federal law.”  

Well, not exactly true.  Bush changed a number of laws and rules in order to legalize the MTR mining that was illegal when authorized by his administration. Two primary rules he changed involved valley fills and the stream buffer rule.

However, there are a number of other laws that still do not allow MTR mining but these laws have simply not been enforced . One, federal reclamation law requires mining companies to restore land to original contours. Instead of compliance, we have the “absurd fiction that extraction pits filled with unconsolidated rocks and rubble where trees will never grow and streams will never flow are ‘reclaimed.'”  Two, fill permits cannot be issued when the filling of streams will cause “significant degradation,” such as the killing of streams, ecosystems and aquatic life by suffocation under the mining waste. Three, federal water law requires mining companies to prove that they can restore the “function and structure” of affected streams. Four, NEPA requires that an environmental impact study be conducted for each permit when a mine may have a significant affect on human health or the environment.

Yet, Obama administration officials “indicated last month that they will allow more than 100 permits to go forward while they carefully review their regulatory options.”  Indeed, WH CEQ Chair Sutley stated the new approach is “a more environmentally tough review” using standards similar to a recent review of 48 MTR permit applications in which the EPA found “no significant problems with 42 of the applications, but it rejected six as too damaging.”

A goal of reducing environmental impacts is meaningless relativity when the inherent nature of MTR mining simply renders the practice inconsistent with federal laws. It is not good enough to simply reduce the impacts of clear-cutting biologically diverse “miniature rain forests”.  The climate change impact is stunning: We are removing the hardwood forests that are the “carbon sinks and lungs of the East Coast” and this deforestation can add “as much as 138 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.” If we don’t stop, an area twice the size of Rhode Island will be eliminated by 2012.

It is not good enough to simply reduce the impacts of using bombs to decapitate mountaintops of chains that have existed for millions of years. We have already allowed 500 mountains to be destroyed encompassing a million acres.  As Robert F. Kennedy Jr. noted, “[m]ining syndicates are detonating 2,500 tons of explosives each day — the equivalent of a Hiroshima bomb weekly — to blow up Appalachia’s mountains and extract sub-surface coal seams.”

It is not good enough to simply reduce the impacts of allowing mining companies to use our streams and lakes as waste dumpsites all in the name of profits for them. All that blasted mountaintop is then dumped into the valleys:  One valley fill may be “over 1,000 feet wide and over a mile long.”  Mining companies first dumped valley fills in ephemeral streams with intermittent flow from rain. Having exhausted the supply of smaller streams, the mining companies now dispose waste in any stream:

[In 2005,] the volume of a single stream fill can be as much as 250 million cubic yards.  As a result, streams are eliminated, stream chemistry is harmed by pollutants in the mining overburden, and downstream aquatic life is impaired.  From 1985 to 2001, an estimated 724 stream miles in West Virginia, Kentucky, and parts of Virginia and Tennessee were covered by valley fills and 1,200 miles of headwater streams were directly impacted by mountaintop mining activities.

The science is clear:

[T]his practice devastates ecosystems, obliterates streams, and pollutes water supplies.  Searching for environmentally acceptable mountaintop removal, which the administration has not ruled out, is futile.  This administration promised a science-based environmental policy, which is impossible to square with mountaintop removal.

As Devilstower says, Mr. President, go and see for yourself, the destruction and devastation to people and environmental resources is too grave to just apply a band-aid of some improvement.

These videos provide a mini aerial tour of the significant, deleterious impacts of MTR mining:

Devilstower offers 2 easy take action items :

Go to Twitter and send this message:

President Obama. Go to West Virginia. See for yourself what Mountaintop Removal is doing to the land, water, and people. #mtr

If you don’t use Twitter, put it on your Facebook wall. If you don’t use Facebook, use your blog site, or a diary on another site, or send it in email. Do all of the above. Get the message out there. Want a quick solution? [Send an email at the]  Try the Help President Obama See the Truth About Mountaintop Removal page from the Rainforest Action Network.


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  1. what about eliminating MTR instead as sure-fire way to achieve reduction of impacts? ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Would be nice President Obama could find the time to see for himself how disgusting this mining practice is. Changing the name is not going to fly. Or is that the change he had in mind?

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