WASHINGTON (EPA) – After extensive scientific study, a major public hearing in West Virginia and review of more than 50,000 public comments, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced Jan. 13 that it will use its authority under the Clean Water Act to halt the proposed disposal of mining waste in streams at the Mingo-Logan Coal Company’s Spruce No. 1 coal mine. EPA is acting under the law and using the best science to protect water quality, wildlife and Appalachian communities, which rely on clean water for drinking, fishing and swimming. EPA has used this Clean Water Act authority in just 12 circumstances since 1972 and reserves this authority for only unacceptable cases. This permit was first proposed in the 1990s and has been held up in the courts ever since.
“The proposed Spruce No. 1 Mine would use destructive and unsustainable mining practices that jeopardize the health of Appalachian communities and clean water on which they depend,” said EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Peter S. Silva. “Coal and coal mining are part of our nation’s energy future, and EPA has worked with companies to design mining operations that adequately protect our nation’s waters. We have a responsibility under the law to protect water quality and safeguard the people who rely on clean water.”
EPA’s final determination on the Spruce Mine comes after discussions with the company spanning more than a year failed to produce an agreement that would lead to a significant decrease in impacts to the environment and Appalachian communities. The action prevents the mine from disposing of the waste into streams unless the company identifies an alternative mining design that would avoid irreversible damage to water quality and meets the requirements of the law. Despite EPA’s willingness to consider alternatives, Mingo Logan did not offer any new proposed mining configurations in response to EPA’s Recommended Determination.
EPA believes that companies can design their operations to make them more sustainable and compliant with the law. Last year, EPA worked closely with a mining company in West Virginia to eliminate nearly 50 percent of its water impacts and reduce contamination while, at the same time, increasing its coal production. These are the kinds of success stories that can be achieved through collaboration and willingness to reduce the impact on mining pollution on our waters. Those changes helped permanently protect local waters, maximize coal recovery and reduce costs for the operators.
EPA’s decision to stop mining waste discharges to high-quality streams at the Spruce No. 1 mine was based on several major environmental and water quality concerns. The proposed mine project would have:
Additionally, during the permitting process there was a failure to consider cumulative watershed degradation resulting from past, present, and future mining in the area.
Finally, EPA’s decision prohibits five proposed valley fills in two streams, Pigeonroost Branch and Oldhouse Branch, and their tributaries. Mining activities at the Spruce site are underway in Seng Camp Creek as a result of a prior agreement reached in the active litigation with the Mingo Logan Coal Company. EPA’s Final Determination does not affect current mining in Seng Camp Creek.
Background on Clean Water Act Section 404(c)
Clean Water Act Section 404(c) authorizes EPA to restrict or prohibit placing dredged or fill material in streams, lakes, rivers, wetlands and other waters if the agency determines that the activities would result in “unacceptable adverse effects” to the environment, water quality, or water supplies. This authority applies to proposed projects as well as projects previously permitted under the Clean Water Act, although EPA is not considering such action for other previously permitted projects.
With the action of Jan. 13, EPA has exercised its Section 404(c) authority only 13 times in its history of the CWA. EPA recognizes the importance of ensuring that its Section 404(c) actions are taken only where environmental impacts are truly unacceptable and will use this authority only where warranted by science and the law.