Moutaintop removal mine permit revoked: Overdue success for one of American Rivers’ Most Endangered Rivers

Although West Virginia had been my home and playground since the late 1970’s, it wasn’t until 2002 that I first went into the deep hollows of the southern coalfield counties and heard first hand from residents whose homes were threatened by mountaintop removal mining operations. This type of coal mining involves the removal of the tops of mountains that loom over Appalachian communities. Small ‘headwater’ streams are buried by these mining operations polluting otherwise pristine water and leaving valleys filled with rubble that can cause massive flooding damage. 

On that same visit in 2002, I met with residents frightened by the prospect of a proposed mine in the beautiful Pigeonroost watershed. An Arch Coal subsidiary had submitted a permit application to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Huntington, West Virginia, for one of the largest mountaintop removal mines in history, known as the Spruce No.1 Mine. In 1998, these residents bravely spoke in opposition to this project.

In 1999, American Rivers listed the Coal River as 9th (PDF) on our list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers™ due to the proposed permit. Later that year the mine permit was blocked in district court, but the proposal was not abandoned by Arch Coal and the state immediately appealed the decision saying valley fills did not violate the Clean Water Act and surface mine rules prohibiting mining within 100 feet of a stream should not apply to valley fills. The Coal River jumped to 6th place on the 2000 America’s Most Endangered Rivers™ list (PDF) pending the higher court’s ruling.

In 2007, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved a ‘dredge and fill’ permit scaled back to 2,278 acres for the Spruce No. 1 Mine; a project that still would have buried more than six miles of streams. The Corps approval, required under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, provided a rubber stamp for state approval.

Environmentalists and residents have argued that burying streams with mining waste is in violation of the intent of the Clean Water Act. More than a thousand miles of headwater streams have been lost in Appalachia due to mountaintop removal coal mining, so this month’s revocation of the Spruce No. 1 permit by the Obama administration’s EPA is a noteworthy blessing to residents of Pigeonroost Hollow and those downstream in the Coal River watershed.

A veto of the permit prevents 110 million cubic yards of mine waste from being dumped into Pigeonroost, saving miles of stream from pollution, preserving the wildlife that depends on clean water, and giving relief to residents living in fear of losing their homes to the mine. EPA wisely determined that the mine “would jeopardize the health of Appalachian communities and clean water on which they depend.”

The decision by EPA to revoke the permit was fueled by a September 2010 report that determined stream damage from Spruce No. 1 could have been dramatically cut without significantly increasing production cost and with current mining technology. Yet, Arch Coal made very limited overtures to minimize stream damage. The decision by EPA indicates that the agency expects more from coal companies. Unfortunately, Pigeonroost Hollow is only one of many threatened watersheds across Appalachia.  In 2010, the issue of mountaintop removal mining again appeared on our list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers™. 

Together with our Appalachian partners, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, and Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, we commend EPA for the action to revoke Arch Coal’s permit and encourage the agency to continue to act on their “responsibility under the law to protect water quality and safeguard the people who rely on clean water.”