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Thursday, December 2, 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 and surface coal mining in Appalachia. The plan includes a series of nearterm and longer-term actions that emphasize specific steps, improved coordination, and greater transparency of decisions. The actions are being implemented through regulatory proposals, guidance documents, and review of pending applications for permits to authorize surface coal mining operations in Appalachia. This report provides background on regulatory requirements, controversies and legal challenges to mountaintop mining, and recent actions and proposals by the Administration. Congressional attention to these issues also is discussed, including legislation in the 111
th Congress that seeks to restrict the practice (H.R. 1310, the Clean Water Protection Act, and S. 696, the Appalachia Restoration Act) and other legislation seeking to block the Administration’s regulatory actions (H.R. 6113 and S. 3933, the Electricity Reliability Protection Act of 2010).

Date of Report: November 22, 2010
Number of Pages: 16
Order Number: RS21421
Price: $29.95

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