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EPA Warning Could Mark Beginning of the End for Mountaintop Removal

The U.S. EPA has warned Mingo Coal that it may veto its application to expand mountaintop removal in West Virginia.

Mountaintop removal, the hyper-destructive practice of blowing up entire mountains to get at coal near the surface, is in for a rough ride.  Though in technological terms mountaintop removal is downright third-world compared to the high tech sustainable energy industry, it’s still been going nonstop right here in the Appalachian mountains of our own northeastern U.S..  The result has been hundreds of mountains destroyed in one of North America’s richest ecosystems, hundreds of miles of streams buried, and an economic and public health climate that is among the worst in the nation.  Now all that is poised to end.  Earlier this year the U.S. EPA suspended the mountaintop removal permitting process and Raw Story is now reporting that the first permit veto is immanent.


According to Raw reporter Joe Byrne, the Mingo Logan Coal Company was notified this past Friday by the EPA that the mountaintop removal permit in the pipeline for its Spruce No. 1 mine in West Virginia faces a veto due to “a high potential for downstream water quality excursions under current mining and valley fill practices.”  With financial backers like Bank of America cutting their ties with companies that practice mountaintop mining, the impending veto could be a harbinger of more to come.

Mountaintop Removal and Green Jobs

As Byrne reports, environmentalists have been fighting the Spruce operation for years.  The opposition to mountaintop removal also includes Appalachian residents and community activists along with coal workers and their families.  The involvement of coal workers might seem counter-intuitive, but it makes sense when you consider that compared to conventional mining, mountaintop removal is a highly mechanized process that creates far fewer jobs.  The Appalachian region has been bleeding mining jobs ever since mountaintop removal came into vogue, despite the greater quantities of coal being shipped out.  Now that green jobs are starting to revive the Rust Belt, Appalachian residents may be on to the idea that their region’s natural beauty and low cost of living could prove attractive to green start-ups, too.  It makes no sense to squander irreplaceable resources on an old-school industry when the new green economy is on the rise.

Mountaintop Mining and Occam’s Green Razor

Without a competing source for massive quantities of energy, at one point in time mountaintop mining had at least a germ of logic to it, much the same way that a wood-reliant nation’s need for energy would result in destructive deforestation.  In fact, it could be argued that the development of fossil fuel resources in the U.S. played a key role in the development of sustainable forest stewardship.  It’s a sort of environmental Occam’s Razor (William of Ockham was a 14th century logician whose writings lead to the principle that the simpler of two competing theories is the better): the less destructive energy source should eventually win out.  The green razor certainly applies to the question of why we would blow apart mountains when we could collect energy in much less destructive ways.  It doesn’t necessarily mean an end to using coal – lots of people in the U.S. still heat with wood, for that matter – it just means the marginalization of coal as an energy source, to the point where in limited quantities it can be more sustainably harvested and used.  Just as wood stepped aside for fossil fuels, now it’s time for coal to step aside for a  more sustainable future.

Image: JW Randolph/”friend’s work” on Wikimedia Commons.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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