In most cases, the law requires that companies rebuild the mountain to its original shape. But leftover rubble is usually left in nearby valleys. There, scientists say, rainwater seeps over rocks that had previously been far underground. That can release trace amounts of salt and toxic metals, which can kill life in streams and cause health problems for people who drink the water.
This practice was deemed legal: From 2000 to 2008, federal and state authorities gave permission for 511 valley fills in West Virginia, according to the Government Accountability Office. Put back to back, the GAO estimated, it was the equivalent of filling a single valley at least 176 miles long.
But Obama’s EPA signaled a new attitude early on by notifying the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — which issues permits to these mines — of its concerns about a mine in West Virginia. The 175 similar sites it has since scrutinized, including new applications, are spread across West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
At the EPA, officials say they’re not out to stamp out mountaintop mining altogether — this month they approved a West Virginia mine permit after the company promised changes to reduce its effect on streams by nearly 50 percent.
But to many environmentalists and coal-industry leaders, the EPA’s actions have seemed erratic and uncertain. It has criticized some mines and approved others, both sides say, without drawing a clear line between good and bad. Activists on both sides say the agency hasn’t always been clear about what criteria it is using to make the distinction — making it hard to guess what mines will make the cut in the future.
“The notion of ‘clarity’ invoked by some West Virginia officials and industry representatives has too often meant letting coal companies do as they please, with little or no consideration for the harmful impacts on Americans living in coal country,” Silva said. EPA officials declined to comment on the record beyond this statement.
Adding to the confusion: The Interior Department rejected a Bush-era rule considered friendly to mines, then said it wouldn’t have a replacement ready for more than a year. And a Corps of Engineers official rejected an EPA request to revisit a permit given to a particularly large mine, leading the EPA to threaten a first-of-its-kind environmental veto.
“We really don’t know where this is going,” said Jason Bostic of the West Virginia Coal Association. He said his organization has passed the message to miners that the agency might hamstring an industry that is still crucial here, though mountaintop mining only accounts for about 10 percent of U.S. coal production. “If there’s going to be a change to EPA’s attitude, everybody’s got to work together.”
On the other side, environmentalist Mike Roselle said the EPA’s actions were reason to redouble a campaign of civil disobedience. Roselle, a veteran of campaigns against logging in the Northwest, has imported the same tactics and even some of the same people here. In the past year, he said, members of his Climate Ground Zero group have been arrested 150 times after sitting in trees on mine sites or chaining themselves to company equipment.
“We know for a fact that, when we shut down a mine, that somebody in the White House is aware of it,” he said. Mine companies have said the practice is dangerous for both workers and protesters.
What’s passed between the two sides has been mild, at least in a state where miners and mine companies used to shoot it out with rifles. But there have been flash points: At a public hearing in the fall, environmentalists say they were shouted down. At a march last year, a woman in a reflective-tape shirt stepped past the troopers standing guard and slapped local activist Julia Bonds. “They don’t seem to understand the difference between nonviolence and violence,” Bonds said.
At the debate last Thursday, with an unusually high police presence, neither side did anything worse than laugh at the other’s speaker. But about an hour away, at a Massey Energy mine, sirens were in the woods.
Three activists had climbed into trees, Roselle said, and Massey security guards were using loud noises to stop them from sleeping and get them to come down.
On Wednesday, Roselle said a tree-sitter had descended because of gear that had become wet. The other two remained. He said he was pleased that the protest had caused headaches for Massey and the West Virginia government. “It absolutely worked,” he said.