Mountaintop mining, the practice of using dynamite or bulldozers to blast off the tops of mountains in search of coal and dumping the rock remnants into valleys, will apparently receive tighter restrictions in an announcement the White House is scheduled to make today.
But the practice, which destroys both the mountaintop ecosystems it blasts away and many stream ecosystems buried under the debris, will remain legal. What’s more, the announcement doesn’t come with any official rule — as the Washington Post puts it, it’s “more like a promise than a policy.”
Also according to the Post story, the EPA reports that some 720 miles of streambeds have been buried since 2001 due to the destructive practice, which occurs in the Appalachians, and heavily in Virginia and West Virginia. Under the new scrutiny, a “fast-track” approval process will end, and all applications will undergo a “more stringent” review. Details of this more stringent review, however, are scarce. Under today’s announcement, federal authorities such as the EPA will “reassert” their existing right to review mountaintop mining applications. A recent EPA review of 48 applications accepted 42 and rejected six.
The problem with this kind of “reassertion” of existing rules is that it doesn’t really change the game for miners. For example, the new assertion will attempt to reduce the amount of debris dumped on valley streams, but there’s no indication of an actual regulation change to enforce this goal. If miners are required to seek nearby valley floors without streams to dump their debris, but they don’t find any nearby, are they then absolved of these requirements and allowed to dump at their discretion?
Making mountaintop mining illegal would require an act of Congress, which looks very unlikely. The Washington Post thinks that mountaintop mining should continue until viable renewable alternatives are brought to the forefront. But according to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the practice supplies less than five percent of the nation’s coal. Is the small fraction of coal supplied really worth the loss of the ecosystem services — like carbon sequestration and water filtration — that these mountain communities provide? If we put a price on those services and compared it with the net monetary gain from mountaintop-derived coal, then Congress might be more inclined to act against the practice. And the White House might be more inclined to voice condemnation.