In 2002, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers cleared the way for a resurgence of environmentally damaging mountaintop coal mining, using a rule change that legalized filling valleys with debris. The result: the drive for low-cost coal is blasting the peaks off the Appalachian Mountains and forever changing the lives of the people beneath them, who say that federal policy to boost energy production has forsaken the environment. In mountaintop removal, the coal industry uses explosives to blast away summits that expose seams of coal, and huge machines push the debris into the valley below. It puts fewer miners at risk than traditional underground mining. But across Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated — in a report produced as part of a lawsuit settlement — that mountaintop removal has filled in some 1,200 miles of streams and completely destroyed another 700 miles. With once-lush hillsides stripped of vegetation and the natural drainage patterns altered, communities below blame the mining for flooding and drinking-water pollution. Until the federal government’s 2002 rule change, mountaintop mining had ebbed in the late 1990s thanks in part to lawsuits. Now, the Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) is proposing another rule change that critics say would further loosen the reins on industry, by easing requirements that mining not affect local water supplies. OSM maintains that Congress envisioned mountaintop mining and construction of valley fills in streams when it passed the federal surface mining law in 1977. An OSM spokesman told the Center that the agency’s job is to minimize the impacts and “to balance environmental protection and production of the nation’s coal supply.” The agency says its new proposal would not increase mountaintop mining, but would have a “positive effect” by clarifying what that law requires for operations near streams. “OSM is committed to carrying out our program with rules that are clear and assure minimization of adverse impacts to the environment and coalfield citizens,” the agency spokesman said. But citing “significant concerns” with the proposed rule, Senators Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, and Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate OSM’s rulemaking procedures, the EPA’s role in them, and the government’s overall policy on mountaintop removal.
Despite opposition from the governors of Tennessee and Kentucky and lawsuit threats by environmentalists, the EPA signed off on OSM’s rule change on December 3, 2008. During the campaign, President-Elect Obama expressed “serious concerns about the environmental implications” of mountaintop mining, but stopped short of calling for a ban on the practice. Coal companies may also face a new struggle as one of the nation’s largest lenders, Bank of America, cited environmental concerns in announcing December 3 it would phase out financing of companies “whose predominant method of extracting coal” is mountaintop removal.