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Don't move mountains

Mountaintop removal comes at too high a cost — for the land, the water and the taxpayers, who end up footing the bill for environmental damage.

September 14, 2010

If the Spruce No. 1 Mine goes forward, it will be one of the largest strip-mining operations in Appalachia and an environmental disgrace. This mountaintop removal project and others like it should be stopped.

Mountaintop removal, a form of surface mining, means just what it sounds like. The tops of mountains, often in West Virginia, are stripped of their trees and then blasted off to get at the coal underneath. And that's not the worst part. The rubble, sludge and other detritus are dumped into the valleys and rivers below, where they bury tributaries and pollute streams.

If it had been made clear from the outset that companies engaging in mountaintop mining would be required to meet their obligations under the federal Clean Water Act by trucking out the debris and cleaning up the environmental damage they leave behind, few if any of these mines would have been proposed in the first place. The mitigation costs would have offset the profit. For the past decade, though, the federal government has issued blanket authorizations for these projects to dump the mountaintop debris. Now there are finally signs of change.

The Obama administration is calling the old permits what they are — permission to flout federal environmental law. It has vowed to review dozens of current permits, and in August it issued more stringent water-quality standards for mountaintop projects. Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers has announced that it will stop issuing blanket permits.

The first big test of this new resolve will be the Spruce No. 1 Mine, which was authorized in 2007 by the Corps of Engineers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has announced that it might reverse that decision — and it should. The project could cause unacceptable levels of damage to the aquatic ecosystem in the region, the agency says, in terms of both water quality and effects on fish and wildlife.

Miners and their supporters protest that the EPA is killing jobs and should be defunded. Their employment worries are understandable, but mountaintop removal comes at too high a cost — for the land, the water and the taxpayers, who end up footing the bill for environmental damage.

Instead of fighting for their right to level mountains, destroy forests and pollute watersheds, mining companies should be proposing environmentally acceptable ways to pull coal from the ground — until the country reaches the point where it doesn't need this fuel and its dirty footprint.

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