For years, coal companies have destroyed Appalachian mountain peaks while government agencies either impotently bickered or looked the other way. The Bush White House did much to weaken an already weak regulatory system and encourage the practice of mountaintop removal. And for a while, it wasn’t clear if the Obama administration’s stated opposition to MTR was merely rhetorical.
Thursday’s announcement that the EPA will crack down on mountaintop removal should put those doubts to rest. The White House is serious about this, and its approach is firmly grounded in science and the law.
The EPA is focusing on one of the most serious problems posed by MTR: valley fills, which are what the name implies – mountain valleys filled up with debris from demolished peaks. (Destroy a mountaintop, and the “footprint” of destruction will be twice as large because you have to dump the debris somewhere else.) Valley fills have many pernicious ecological consequences. By far the worst is the poisoning of mountain streams with various heavy metals and other minerals liberated from all that crushed rock.
In recent years scientists working for the EPA, other agencies, and universities have devoted serious study to the unique, upside-down environments created by MTR and valley fills, and found that the damage is far worse than previously thought. In January, a group of scientists rounded up the evidence and published a paper calling for a moratorium on mountaintop removal permits.
The EPA’s crackdown is a vindication of this effort, and of science-based decision-making in general. I have to admit, I’m surprised. They were getting tougher – but mostly on a case-by-case basis that seemed to lack the broader agenda that requires White House backing. And given the Obama White House’s caution and moderation, I don’t think anyone expected them to follow through – and, effectively, put a stick in the coal industry’s eye.
But it’s pretty straightforward. Mountaintop removal makes a mockery of laws such as the Clean Water Act. By acting now, the EPA has begun to do its job of enforcing that law. This shows that the environmental regulatory system, purposely degraded under Bush, is getting some of its bite back. Of course, this is just the beginning; we’ll see how it plays out.