Resources and Environmental Policy
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. Mountaintop mining is regulated under several laws, including the
Clean Water Act (CWA) and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act
Critics say that, as a result of valley fills from mountaintop mining, 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 it would not be economically feasible there if
operators were barred from using valleys for the disposal of mining
overburden. Critics have used litigation to challenge the practice. In a
number of cases discussed in this report, environmental groups have been
successful at the federal district court level in challenging issuance of
permits for mountaintop mining projects, but each has been later overturned
on appeal. Nonetheless, the criticisms also have prompted some regulatory
changes, also discussed here.
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 near-term 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 applications for permits to authorize surface coal mining
operations in Appalachia. Viewed broadly, the Administration’s combined actions
on mountaintop mining displease both industry and environmental advocates.
The additional scrutiny of permits and more stringent requirements have
angered the coal industry and many of its supporters. Controversy also was
generated by EPA’s January 2011 veto of a CWA permit that had been issued
by the Corps for a surface coal mining project in West Virginia. At the same
time, while environmental groups support EPA’s steps to restrict the
practice, many favor tougher requirements or even total rejection of
mountaintop mining in Appalachia. Federal courts have recently rejected
some of the Administration’s actions, including overturning EPA’s veto of the West
Virginia mine permit. The government is appealing that ruling.
This report provides background on regulatory requirements, controversies and
legal challenges to mountaintop mining, and recent Administration actions.
Congressional interest in these issues also is discussed, including
legislation in the 111th Congress seeking to restrict the practice of mountaintop
mining and other legislation intended to block the Obama Administration’s regulatory
actions. Attention to EPA’s veto of the West Virginia mining permit and other
federal agency actions has increased in the 112th Congress. Several bills
have been introduced to clarify or restrict EPA’s authority to veto CWA
permits issued by the Corps (H.R. 457/S. 272; H.R. 517; H.R. 960/S. 468;
and H.R. 2018, which the House passed in July 2011).
Date of Report: May 30, 2012
Number of Pages: 20
Order Number: RS21421
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