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Appalachian Groups Say Stricter Rules for Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining are Needed

A progress reportfrom a policy organization takes the Obama Administration to task for not following through on all of the actions laid out in a 2009 document designed to tighten the regulations governing surface mining in Appalachia.

In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of the Interiorput out a Memorandum of Understanding describing how the agencies would coordinate their approval of permits for mountaintop removal coal mining. The point was to make the permit process more stringent, and do a better job protecting the land from the environmental effects of mining.

The Alliance for Appalachia—a regional coalition of non-profits—dissected the 2009 MOU, and released its report today. The document outlines the ways the Obama Administration has followed through on some of its promises, but also the ways it failed to deliver on others.

Teri Blanton is a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, which is one of the coalitions that make up the Alliance for Appalachia. She said the reality of the MOU has been disappointing.

“Well, in Kentucky we’ve heard that there’s been a ‘war on coal,’ and all of the politicians say that,” she said. “But in reality, the things that we’ve been asking for all along haven’t happened.”

At least not through federal government action.

The Alliance for Appalachia’s members say they’d like to see the Obama Administration implement a stronger selenium standard based on water column sampling, to ensure that fish species are protected. They want a federal standard for conductivity in waterways, rather than the federal guidance that exist now, as well as an updated stream protection rule with a buffer zone to keep mining waste away from streams. And they’d also like the storage of coal ash in abandoned mines to be regulated by the federal government.

Blanton said one of the positive steps after the MOU was issued was the government doing away with the Nationwide 21 permit, which acted as a blanket permit for valley fills attached to mountaintop removal mines. Now, coal operators have to get individual permits.

But she cited the recent news of thousands of continuing violations at Frasure Creek’s coal mines in Kentucky as evidence that federal government oversight is necessary.

“We need the federal agencies more than ever,” she said. “When we have our own state government saying ‘we do not have the funds for oversight,’ then we definitely need the federal agencies to come in and make sure that our waters are safe because right now, it pays to pollute in the state of Kentucky.”

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Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.