One day after spurning environmentalists by expanding U.S. offshore oil and gas drilling, President Obama delighted activists by taking tough new steps to restrict the pollution of mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining in Appalachian states. 

On Thursday, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson announced new guidelines to ensure that state and federal regulators enforce existing environmental standards. The guidance from EPA establishes a range of conductivity levels for streams affected by runoff from mountaintop mining, a controversial practice in which explosives literally blow off the tops of mountains to expose coal seams near the surface. Scientists have determined that conductivity is a reliable way to measure the health of water because it indicates the amount of salt in the water. The lower the level of salt, the easier it is for organisms to survive.

In addition, new permits aimed at reducing water pollution will be required for mountaintop mining operations. 

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, called the move “the most significant administrative action ever taken to address mountaintop removal coal mining.”

EPA also made public several scientific reports on the impacts of surface mining. The studies show “significant damage to local streams that are polluted with the mining runoff from mountaintop mining removal,” EPA said in a release.

Moreover, runoff introduced into the waterways surrounding MTR sites “can significantly compromise water quality, often causing permanent damage to ecosystems and rendering streams unfit for swimming, fishing, and drinking.”

“This benchmark prevents irreversible damage to the physical and biological integrity of Appalachian streams and protects 95 percent of aquatic organisms living in them,” Ms. Jackson said.      

Environmentalists cheered the move, but the coal industry criticized the government for imposing rules that companies fear could hurt jobs in the region.

“America’s coal mining communities are deeply concerned by the impact of policy announced today by EPA on coal mining permits, employment, and economic activity throughout Appalachia,” said Bruce Watzman, senior vice president for regulatory affairs at the National Mining Association, in an e-mailed statement to the New York Times

Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, said the group was deeply concerned that EPA’s action would harm the regional economy.


“This guidance ignores a much-needed balance between economic needs and environmental expectations,” Popovich said.

Jackson, however, said her agency was taking action at the request of various government leaders, including Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.VA), founder of the Clean Coal Technology Program.

“I am pleased that EPA Administrator Jackson took our concerns about the need to provide clarity very seriously and has responded with these guidelines,” the Senator said.

Jackson, too, defended her agency’s announcement.

“Let me be clear,” she said. “This is not about ending coal mining. This is about ending coal mining pollution.”