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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mountaintop Mining: Background on Current Controversies

Claudia Copeland
Specialist in Resources and Environmental Policy

Mountaintop removal mining involves removing the top of a mountain in order to recover the coal seams contained there. This practice occurs in six Appalachian states (Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and Ohio). It creates an immense quantity of excess spoil (dirt and rock that previously composed the mountaintop), which is typically placed in valley fills on the sides of the former mountains, burying streams that flow through the valleys. Critics say that, as a result of valley fills, stream water quality and the aquatic and wildlife habitat that streams support are destroyed by tons of rocks and dirt. The mining industry argues that mountaintop mining is essential to conducting surface coal mining in the Appalachian region and that surface coal mining would not be economically feasible there if producers were restricted from using valleys for the disposal of mining overburden. 

Mountaintop mining is regulated under several laws, including the Clean Water Act (CWA) and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA). In June 2009, officials of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), and the Department of the Interior signed a Memorandum of Understanding outlining a series of administrative actions under these laws to reduce the harmful environmental impacts of mountaintop mining. The plan includes a series of near-term and longer-term actions that emphasize specific steps, improved coordination, and greater transparency of decisions. This report provides background on regulatory requirements, controversies, and legal challenges to mountaintop mining. Congressional attention to these issues, including legislation that seeks to restrict the practice (H.R. 1310, the Clean Water Protection Act, and S. 696, the Appalachia Restoration Act), also is discussed.

Date of Report: February 4, 2010
Number of Pages: 13
Order Number:RS21421
Price: $29.95

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