The Obama administration is moving to crack down on the mining industry for safety and environmental violations. For the first time in its history, the Department of Labor is suing to close a mine for safety reasons: Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine in Kentucky, which had over 2,000 violations between July, 2008 and last April, when 29 miners died there.
And the Environmental Protection Agency is moving to rescind a permit for a coal mining project that would blow the tops off mountains covering 2,278 acres in West Virginia.
The project, Spruce Mine No. 1, proposed by Arch Coal of St. Louis and permitted by the Bush administration, would have dumped the rubble resulting from the explosions into valleys, filling seven miles of streams with an estimated 110 million cubic yards of toxic rubbish.
The EPA is not talking about issuing a blanket prohibition for the Spruce Mine, but about rescinding its water permit, which would allow the company to dump the waste in the streams. But Arch Coal says the rescission of that permit would kill the project. The Obama administration is throwing down a glove to the coal industry and other businesses by considering revoking the permit. According to the Wall Street Journal, this would be the first time in the EPA's history that a previously granted permit had been rescinded.
And it would be a dramatic change for the coal industry, which got very favorable treatment and relaxation of regulations from former president George W. Bush and vice-president Dick Cheney. That administration actually fought federal court decisions aimed at enforcing the Clean Water Act in mining operations, and loosened regulations to allow mining companies to put rubble in headwater streams.
The EPA estimates that so-called mountaintop removal mining, which uses ammonium nitrate to blow up mountains and reach seams of coal under their surfaces, has already exploded 500 mountaintops into 2,000 streams in West Virginia.
"The resulting waste that fills valleys and streams can significantly compromise water quality," the agency says, "often causing permanent damage to ecosystems and rendering streams unfit for swimming, fishing and drinking."
Witnesses, such as members of the environmental organization The Riverkeepers and people living in Appalachia, say the mining has left the landscapes in that region unrecognizable in comparison with the landscapes of 40 years ago.