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Pressure builds against mountaintop coal mining

The Obama administration, which has pledged to heed scientific expertise on the issue, should reject all new mountaintop removal permits, scientists say, citing environmental and health effects.

January 08, 2010|By Tom Hamburger

Reporting from Washington — Mountaintop coal mining, which involves blowing up mountain peaks to get access to coal seams below, should be halted immediately because of growing evidence of its environmental and health threats, scientists urged Thursday in the journal Science.

The paper, by a group of hydrologists, ecologists and engineers, presents a new and difficult challenge to the Obama administration, which has upset environmentalists by continuing to approve such permits even as it has promised to rely on scientific expertise in deciding whether to grant permits for the controversial practice.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently released a permit for a large mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia, which raised objections from environmental activists.

Coal companies say the practice is more efficient and safer than traditional deep-shaft mining, and that steps are taken to mitigate damage. Environmentalists say it degrades the landscape, destroys habitat and pollutes streams that get filled with debris from explosions.

The issue is politically touchy for President Obama, who won his election with the support of environmentalists but also needs support from voters in coal states, such as Ohio, where he won by a narrow margin.

The authors of the paper urged the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reject all new mountaintop mining permits.

"The scientific evidence of the severe environmental and human impacts from mountaintop mining is strong and irrefutable," said lead author Margaret Palmer of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

The paper, which analyzed findings from previous studies along with new water-quality data from West Virginia, outlined environmental degradation at mining sites and downstream, "including harmful consequences for both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems."

The authors also described health effects associated with surface mining for coal in the Appalachian region where most of this mining takes place. The problems include elevated death rates, lung cancer and kidney disease in coal-producing communities.

The EPA said in a statement Thursday that the article "underscores EPA's own scientific analysis regarding the substantial environmental, water and health impacts that result from mountaintop mining operations."

But environmentalists said the EPA's efforts to regulate mountaintop mining have been inadequate.

"The permit that the EPA just released this week is not consistent with what the scientists are saying," said Joan Mulhern, counsel to Earthjustice, which has taken legal action to halt the practice.

"The Obama administration has pledged in general to . . . do what the science dictates. This unequivocal new study has got to drive them to phase out the practice," Mulhern said.

She and other environmentalists had been mystified and confused by the administration's approach, which blocks some permits but approves others. She said the administration has not responded to requests for clarification.

tom.hamburger@latimes.com

Jim Tankersley in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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