EPA's new regulatory guidance on mountaintop mining removal is a positive step at reducing the damage from mountaintop removal (MTR) mines but it doesn't stop MTR nor does it stop rivers from being poisoned by arsenic, selenium, tellurium and other toxic chemicals in coal mining waste the industry calls fill. Moreover, it does nothing to stop the damage to our waters from toxic coal ash.
The EPA's new guidance uses a gross indicator of water quality, electrical conductivity, as a basis for decisions to approve, reject or modify MTR plans instead of looking at the most likely toxic elements to exceed water quality standards such as arsenic, selenium and tellurium.
The association of coal and toxic elements is simple chemistry. A number of toxic elements including arsenic, selenium, mercury, tellurium, and uranium move quite freely in oxygenated groundwater. However, when organic matter is present bacteria and chemical reactions convert these toxic elements to immobile chemical forms. Therefore these toxic elements are concentrated in and around coal seams.
When we mine the coal we reintroduce oxygen and mobilize the toxic elements. When we burn the coal we concentrate the toxic elements in the ash.
The amount of toxic elements available for leaching into surface and ground water depends on the geology of the coal seam and the rocks around it. High electrical conductivity is an indicator of high total dissolved solids, but it doesn't identify problems with specific toxic chemicals.
Regarding the key issue of conductivity (a key measure of the presence of many harmful pollutants, such as chlorides, sulfides and dissolved solids), EPA cites the previous work of agency scientists who found that streams with conductivity of more than 500 microsiemens per centimeter were impaired.
But, EPA has also completed a draft of a new study by the agency’s Office of Research and Development that warns of impacts at even lower levels of conductivity of 300 microsiemens per centimeter.
Based on that study, EPA now says that it believes any mining proposals with predicted conductivity levels of 300 are generally okay, while anything above 500 is considered by EPA "to be associated with impacts that may rise to the level of exceedances of narrative state water quality standards."
- Mining Impacts Must Be Effectively Mitigated: Unavoidable mining-related environmental impacts must be effectively mitigated by establishing, restoring, enhancing, or preserving streams and wetlands; improving water quality; addressing drinking water impacts; and reclaiming watersheds when mining is completed.
To assure effective mitigation, permit applicants should conduct functional stream impact assessments and ensure these assessments are effectively used to quantify the environmental effects of individual mining projects on streams. Also, Regions should work with and provide technical assistance to the Corps and state agencies on the development and implementation of effective assessment methods. These assessments should be used to ensure that compensatory mitigation replaces lost stream functions.
Mine operators must not rely on drainageways (e.g., groin ditches), which do not replace lost stream function and structure and are therefore not an acceptable form of compensatory mitigation. Stream restoration is the preferred method for replacing lost stream function and structure.
However, when a strip or MTR mine covers many square miles it is impossible to restore stream function. Soil structure and chemistry cannot be repaired. Mining waste the coal industry wrongly calls "fill" is much less permeable than the original soil profile. Therefore it is subject to more runoff and erosion than the original forested soil. Moreover, the eroded waste material adds a load of suspended solids when it flows into streams.
Hydrologic flow paths in Appalachian forests are predominantly through permeable soil layers. However, in mined sites, removal of vegetation, alterations in topography, loss of topsoil, and soil compaction from use of heavy machinery reduce infiltration capacity and promote runoff by overland flow ( 8). This leads to greater storm runoff and increased frequency and magnitude of downstream flooding ( 9, 10).
Water emerges from the base of valley fills containing a variety of solutes toxic or damaging to biota ( 11). Declines in stream biodiversity have been linked to the level of mining disturbance in WV watersheds (12). Below valley fills in the central Appalachians, streams are characterized by increases in pH, electrical conductivity, and total dissolved solids due to elevated concentrations of sulfate (SO4), calcium, magnesium, and bicarbonate ions ( 13).
The ions are released as coal-generated sulfuric acid weathers carbonate rocks. Stream water SO4 concentrations are closely linked to the extent of mining in these watersheds ( 11, 14).We found that significant linear increases in the concentrations of metals, as well as decreases in multiple measures of biological health, were associated with increases in stream water SO4 in streams below mined sites (see the chart on page 149). Recovery of biodiversity in mining waste-impacted streams has not been documented, and SO4 pollution is known to persist long after mining ceases ( 14).
Scientific evidence supports the determination that the only way to effectively implement the clean water act in coal country is to ban mountaintop removal mining because stream damage is effectively permanent and restoration is impossible. However, because the coal industry is politically powerful, the EPA is restricting MTR, not banning it.
A recent EPA study found that nine out of every 10 streams downstream from surface mining operations were impaired based on a genus-level assessment of aquatic life.5
Another federal study found elevated levels of highly toxic and bioaccumulative selenium in streams downstream from valley fills.6 These impairments are linked to contamination of surface water supplies and resulting health concerns, as well as widespread impacts to stream life in downstream rivers and streams.
Further, the estimated scale of deforestation from existing Appalachian surface mining operations is equivalent in size to the state of Delaware. Appalachian deforestation has been linked to significant changes in aquatic communities as well as to modified storm runoff regimes, accelerated sediment and nutrient transport, reduced organic matter inputs, shifts in the stream’s energy base, and altered thermal regimes.7 Such impacts have placed further stresses on water quality and the ecological viability of watersheds.
(Note to readers who have read this far: I have written regulatory guidance for a U.S. regulatory agency and managed research projects on the transport of toxic [including radioactive] chemicals in ground water and surface water.)
And even if MTR was banned tomorrow, there's the ongoing problem of toxic coal ash which isn't regulated as the toxic waste it is. The Riverkeeper Alliance has identified 31 additional coal ash dump sites that are contaminating ground water and surface water, bringing the total number of known contaminated sites to over 100.
Coal-fired power plants generate nearly 140 million tons of fly ash, scrubber sludge, and other combustion wastes every year.i These wastes contain some of the earth‘s most deadly pollutants, including arsenic, cadmium, lead, selenium, and other toxic metals that can cause cancer and neurological harm in humans and poison fish. This report brings to light 31 coal combustion waste sites that are known to have contaminated groundwater, wetlands, creeks, or rivers in 14 states: Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. The data presented below and in the attached report were compiled from monitoring data and other information in the files of state agencies. At 15 of the 31 sites, contamination has already migrated off the power plant property (off-site) at levels that exceed drinking water or surface water quality standards. The remaining 16 show evidence of severe on-site pollution (see Table 1 and Summary). Because off-site monitoring data at 14 of these 16 sites were not available, damage may be more severe and widespread than indicated in this report. Based on similar criteria, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has already identified 71 coal combustion waste damage cases, 23 of which are known to have caused off-site contamination.ii The 31 new damage cases identified in this report bring the total number of damaged sites to more than 100, with still more to be investigated.
The EPA press release speaks of envrinmental justice.
VI. Environmental Justice Considerations Surface coal mining can have adverse environmental and health impacts on neighboring communities. The federal statutes and regulations under which EPA, the Corps, OSM, and the states evaluate permit applications for surface coal mining require consideration of the full range of potential impacts on the environment, human health, and communities. Executive Order 12898 requires federal agencies to give particularly careful consideration to potential impacts on low-income or minority populations. Federal laws and regulations also require that meaningful opportunities be provided for public participation in the permit decision-making process.
However, the reality is that toxic coal ash is heavily impacting low income minority populations. No case I know of is any worse than the case of the "cleaned up" waste from the TVA coal ash disaster in Tennessee.
The coal ash has been dumped in a landfill in a poor, African American county in Alabama. Toxic leachate is running off of the ash as you can see in the photo below. Glynn Wilson is an excellent reporter with an outstanding progressive site. Check it out.
The toxic runoff however, is a bigger problem than the mishandled solid waste. There is no safe place to dispose of it.
A wastewater processing company in Mobile, Alabama, called Liquid Environmental Solutions, said Friday it would stop accepting shipments of wastewater runoff from the Perry County landfill that is accepting the coal ash, which is laced with arsenic, mercury, lead, uranium and other heavy metals and toxic substances.
In a statement, the Dallas-based Liquid Environmental Solution’s senior vice president, Dana King, said the shipments have been stopped "due to local concerns" because "some people are up in arms" even though the company has "properly accepted, tested and treated the non-hazardous Perry County landfill wastewater."
Many of the substances in the waste are considered hazardous and cancer-causing agents individually, but due to the complicated federal regulatory scheme, they are not classified as "hazardous waste" under the law as it now stands.
"In support of our commitment to work with community leaders, we have decided we will no longer be accepting this wastewater," King said.
After being treated, the wastewater was being routed through the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System and discharged into Mobile Bay.
I applaud the EPA on this first step on MTR but it's past time that we hear the truth about coal. When you account for the death, destruction, toxic pollution and greenhouse warming costs, coal is the most expensive energy of all. We'll be paying for the coal we've already burned for generations to come.