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A mountaintop mining operation in West Virginia

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Related Mid-Atlantic Information

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What is mountaintop mining?

Mountaintop coal mining is a surface mining practice involving the:

Valley fills occur in steep terrain where there are limited disposal alternatives. Mountaintop coal mining operations are concentrated in eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, western Virginia, and scattered areas of eastern Tennessee. In 1998, the US Department of Energy estimated that 28.5 billion tons of high quality coal remain in the Appalachia coal mining region. Restricting mountaintop mining to small watersheds could substantially impact the amount of extraction that takes place.

There are 5 basic steps to this method of mining:

diagrams of the process

  1. Layers of rock and dirt above the coal (called overburden) are removed.
  2. The upper seams of coal are removed with spoils placed in an adjacent valley.
  3. Draglines excavate lower layers of coal with spoils placed in spoil piles.
  4. Regrading begins as coal excavation continues.
  5. Once coal removal is complete, final regrading takes place and the area is revegetated.

Regulations

Mining operations are regulated under the Clean Water Act (CWA), including discharges of pollutants to streams from valley fills (CWA Section 402) and the valley fill itself where the rock and soil is placed in streams and wetlands (CWA Section 404). Coal mining operations are also regulated under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA).

Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement

EPA, in conjunction with the US Army Corps of Engineers, the US Department of the Interior's Office of Surface Mining and Fish & Wildlife Service, and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, prepared an environmental impact statement (draft EIS | final EIS) looking at the impacts of mountaintop mining and valley fills. This was done as part of a settlement agreement in the court case known as Bragg v. Robertson, Civ. No. 2:98-0636 (S.D. W.V.). The purpose was to evaluate options for improving agency programs that will contribute to reducing the adverse environmental impacts of mountaintop mining operations and excess spoil valley fills in Appalachia. The geographic focus was approximately 12 million acres encompassing most of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, western Virginia, and scattered areas of eastern Tennessee.

Environmental Impacts

Based on studies of over 1200 stream segments impacted by mountaintop mining and valley fills the following environmental issues were noted:

Downstream effects of mountaintop coal mining: comparing biological conditions using family- and genus-level macroinvertebrate bioassessment tools (PDF) (21 pp, 1.1MB, About PDF) by Gregory J. Pond, Margaret E. Passmore, Frank A. Borsuk, Lou Reynolds, and Carole J. Rose, US EPA.

Healthy Waters Priority

EPA's mid-Atlantic regional office has incorporated a new approach to maximizing efficiency in watershed protection and restoration by using the best available data to sharpen our focus and appropriately allocate and mobilize resources. Mining is one of 4 Priority Sectors in this Healthy Waters Priority approach. Efforts are being made to protect healthy waters and restore degraded waters within watersheds affected by coal mining.

Mid-Atlantic Region || Mid-Atlantic Env'l Assessment & Innovation || Mid-Atlantic Mountaintop Mining


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