50 Dems urge EPA to ignore Manchin, fight against mountaintop mining

In a letter sent Friday to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, the lawmakers said new mining rules designed to protect the health of neighboring residents "represent significant progress for communities struggling in the shadow of mining."

The letter arrived just two days after West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin — the Democrat in a surprisingly tough race to replace the late-Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) — sued the EPA over the new rules. The House Democrats didn't mention Manchin or the suit, but the timing of their letter is likely not a coincidence.

"When scientific research shows that surface mining routinely violates downstream water quality standards," the Democrats wrote, "it is critical for EPA to ensure that states and mining companies are aware of the pollution levels that cause harm, that discharge permits incorporate adequate safeguards, and that the permits are enforced."

Among those endorsing the letter were Reps. Frank Pallone (N.J.), Earl Blumenauer (Ore.), Henry Waxman (Calif.), Pete Stark (Calif.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.). 

Mountaintop removal mining — in which companies blast away Appalachian peaks and push the debris into adjacent valleys — has been a boon to the industry, cutting labor costs and eliminating the need to truck the waste to more distant dumping grounds. But many scientists say the dollar savings for companies comes at the expense of human health.

A study published in the journal Science in January, for instance, noted that "adult hospitalizations for chronic pulmonary disorders and hypertension are elevated as a function of county-level coal production, as are rates of mortality; lung cancer; and chronic heart, lung, and kidney disease. 

"Health problems are for women and men, so effects are not simply a result of direct occupational exposure of predominantly male coal miners," the researchers wrote.

Commenting on the study, lead author Margaret Palmer, a scientist at the University of Maryland, said "the scientific evidence of the severe environmental and human impacts from mountaintop mining is strong and irrefutable." 

"Its impacts are pervasive and long lasting and there is no evidence that any mitigation practices successfully reverse the damage it causes."

More recently, researchers at Virginia Tech and West Virginia University found that people living near streams poisoned by mines are at higher risk of getting cancer.

Responding to concerns raised by health advocates, environmentalists and community activists, the EPA in April said it won't approve permits for mountaintop removal mines projected to raise stream toxicity above a certain level. 

The new guidelines gauge the health of streams based on their conductivity, which is a good indicator of water’s purity. The runoff from Appalachian mines tends to contain toxins like magnesium, sulfate, bicarbonate, and potassium — all ions that raise conductivity levels. The higher the conductivity, the more harmful the water is to living things.

EPA says it will reject mining projects expected to raise stream conductivity more than five times the normal level. Effectively, the agency attached hard numerical standards to environmental protections more vaguely outlined in the Clean Water Act. 

Jackson in April said there are “no or very few valley fills that will meet standards like this.”

The guidelines came under immediate attack from the mining industry and many coal country lawmakers, who argued that the restrictions will hobble an industry that's vital for creating Appalachian jobs. Arguing that same point last week, Manchin, a former coal broker, sued the EPA over the new rules.

"We are asking the court to reverse EPA's actions before West Virginia's economy and our mining community face further hardship and uncertainty and weaken the strength of this country," Manchin told reporters.

Two days later, the 50 House Democrats penned their letter offering full support of the EPA rules.  

"Surface mining in the steep slopes of Appalachia has disrupted the biological integrity of an area about the size of Delaware, buried approximately 2,000 miles of streams with mining waste, and contaminated downstream areas with toxic and bio-accumulative selenium," the lawmakers wrote.

"The ultimate success of the new guidance depends upon effective implementation by EPA and its regional offices. Mining companies and some state agencies may reject this guidance, but we strongly urge the EPA to carry it out aggressively."

The Democrats also vowed to continue their support for legislation — sponsored by Pallone and GOP Rep. Dave Reichert (Wash.) —  that would prohibit mine companies from dumping debris in streams altogether. Similar legislation has been introduced by Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).

The idea is to eliminate mountaintop removal by making the process economically unfeasible to companies that would be forced to truck the waste off-site.

"Nothing less," the Democrats wrote to Jackson, "will protect Appalachia from the devastation of mountaintop removal mining."

More in Energy & Environment

GOP bill would block mountaintop mining rule

Read more »