Thursday, June 25, 2009

Senators hold hearing on mountaintop removal; spotlights new studies by EPA, other experts

"A federal regulator joined a university expert, a West Virginia activist and a Tennessee environmental commissioner in criticizing large-scale strip mining's impacts" today, at the first congressional hearing on mountiantop-removal mining, reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. A West Virginia regulator defended the controversial practice and his agency's handling of it.

The hearing was held by Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, chairman of a subcommittee of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Cardin and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander have introduced a bill to keep coal companies from burying stream channels with valley fills, a practice required by mountaintop removal and also used in "area mining," in which the land is supposed to be reclaimed to its approximate original contours.

Alexander, a Republican, "noted that his home state has already banned valley fills, and Tennessee Deputy Commissioner of Environment and Conservation Paul Sloan encouraged lawmakers to expand that prohibition to protect the region's vital headwaters streams," Ward reports. "Cardin said that, among other concerns, he is worried that the environmental damage from mountaintop removal may be hindering other economic development efforts in the Appalachian region." Randy Huffman, secretary of West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection said "Many in the state are concerned about losing the opportunities for future economic development associated with mountaintop mining."

On his Coal Tattoo blog, Ward debunked a claim by Huffman and the coal industry that the only evidence of significant ecological impact downstream is reduced numbers of mayflies. "As I tried to explain in a story about this study more than a year ago, this isn’t just about mayflies — it’s about mayflies as one measure of overall stream health. We care about mayflies because they are an indicator species that helps us understand broader environmental impacts.

Randy Pomponio, director of environmental assessment for the mid-Atlantic region of the Environmental Protection Agency, said mountaintop removal buries about 120 miles of streams a year "and studies show valley fills not only eliminate those waterways, but also degrade water quality downstream," Ward reports. University of Maryland ecologist Margaret Palmer told the subcommittee, "There is no evidence to date that mitigation actions can compensate for the lost natural resources and ecological functions of the headwater streams that are buried." Maria Gunnoe of West Virginia, who won the international Goldman Prize for her battles against mountaintop removal, called on Congress to "change the history of energy in this country."(Read more) For audio excerpts of testimony by Huffman and Gunnoe, with reporting by West Virginia Public Broadcasting's Tanya Snyder, click here.

Ward notes in a later post that the hearing offered "some major disclosures, and also the public release of two new independent reports [from Pomponio and Palmer] that detail the growing scientific evidence about this practice’s environmental impacts."

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