EPA Takes Historic Stand for Sustainable Business

In a historic move spelling hope for the triumph of sustainable business over dirty and outdated means of energy production, this week the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) vetoed one of the most destructive mining projects proposed in the United States. Invoking the agency’s authority under the Clean Water Act, the EPA formally overturned an earlier decision by the US Army Corps of Engineers to grant a permit for Arch Coal’s proposed Spruce No. 1 mountaintop removal mine in Logan County, West Virginia.

Mountaintop removal mining is a practice that makes many other corporate misbehaviors look, well, almost cute. As the name suggests, mountaintop removal involves blowing off all or part of a mountaintop to expose underground coal seems, which in some cases may not be economically viable to extract any other way. The environmental costs and health impacts on nearby communities are huge: sludge and rubble from mountaintop removal sites is usually dumped into nearby valleys, where it contaminates streams with heavy metals and other dangerous chemicals. Sooner or later these compounds end up in the drinking water of communities in Appalachia (which is where virtually all of this type of mining takes place).

Arch Coal’s Spruce Mine was the biggest proposed mountaintop removal mine in the US. The project would have destroyed 2,278 acres of Appalachian forest and buried seven and a half miles of streams. For years environmental organizations in Appalachia have pressured the EPA to end mountaintop removal mining, and tens of thousands of citizens submitted comments to the agency urging it to veto Spruce Mine. There could hardly be a clearer case of sustainable business and the health of communities pitted against an archaic method of energy extraction that deserves no place in the twenty-first century economy. However given the power of the mining lobby, it was far from self-evident the EPA would do the right thing. In fact for years the agency has declined to use its full Clean Water Act authority to stop mountaintop removal.

The decision this week to veto the Spruce Mine permit is an encouraging sign that the EPA may at last be ready to stand up for the mountains and the people who depend on them. With help from the federal government, West Virginia and other states in Appalachia have a chance to harness their abundant renewable energy resources, and trade in mountaintop removal and other destructive forms of coal mining for a new era of sustainable business and prosperity. However the fight isn’t over yet, as Spruce Mine was just one of many mountaintop removal projects moving forward in the region.

Having vetoed the largest and probably most destructive mountaintop removal mine in Appalachia, the EPA should keep up the momentum. The federal government’s commitment to sustainable business can’t be taken seriously until every mountaintop removal mine in the US is halted, and this destructive practice is abolished for good. Here’s hoping the Spruce Mine veto is a preview of things to come.

Photo credit: Marshal Hedin