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Groups seek EPA mountaintop removal rule

Read the petition CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Seventeen national, regional and local environmental groups this week urged the Obama administration to issue a new water quality rule aimed at reducing pollution from mountaintop removal coal mining.In a formal rulemaking petition, the groups said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should set an enforceable water limit on electrical conductivity as a tool to curb mining pollution.The groups said the federal water standard is needed because other EPA efforts have been ineffective at controlling damage to aquatic life, especially in the face of opposition from industry and coal-state regulators."Only a federally promulgated numeric water quality standard will finally resolve this problem and bring long-needed protection to Appalachian waterways and the communities that depend on them," the citizen groups said in their 33-page petition.Citizen groups asked EPA to respond within 180 days and to begin a rulemaking procedure to "set water quality standards to address the problem of conductivity in Appalachian states affected by mountaintop removal mining."The petition highlights the fact that while industry officials and coalfield politicians say the Obama administration has carried out a "war on coal," environmental organizations don't believe the administration has done nearly enough about mountaintop removal."We need EPA to act now," said Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. "State politics and industry pressure have so far failed to end this pollution without such a standard and more and more streams and communities who rely on those waters are left vulnerable."
EPA refused to make any agency officials available for an interview. Instead, EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson said in an e-mail message, "We will review the petition and respond accordingly."In mountaintop removal, coal operators use explosives to blast off entire hilltops and uncover valuable low-sulfur coal reserves. Leftover rock and dirt is shoved into nearby valleys, burying streams.Industry officials consider the method to be highly efficient and the only way to reach some thin seams of Appalachian coal. Critics point to the fewer number of workers mountaintop removal needs, and to a growing body of science that shows water quality, forests, and public health are threatened by mining practices.Over the last five years, EPA experts and independent scientists have focused on conductivity as one key way to gauge the level of pollution that is harmful to aquatic life in streams.Conductivity is a measure of the ability of water to conduct an electrical current. Scientists use conductivity as an indicator of stream health and the presence of other important pollutants, such as chlorides, sulfides and dissolved solids.The rulemaking petition comes as an appeals court in Washington considers EPA's appeal of a lower court decision that threw out a federal guidance document aimed at reducing conductivity pollution from mining. In that lower court ruling, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton did not address the scientific evidence for EPA's guidance, instead simply ruling the agency did not have authority to issue the guidance in the first place.West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection has argued that there is only a "loose and questionable causal relationship" between high conductivity and stream impairment. And scientists working for a $15 million industry-funded research effort are trying to argue that conductivity is not a good measure for mining impacts.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at or 304-348-1702.
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