The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday gave the green light to a new mountaintop removal coal mining permit in West Virginia, after last year calling for a time-out on new permits for the controversial mining process that requires blasting the tops off mountains to reach the coal seams inside.
The approval of Patriot Coal Corp.'s permit to proceed was a huge disappointment to local activists and environmental groups who hoped the Obama administration would approach mountaintop removal (MTR) with more attention to the environmental and health impacts, as it promised last year. And now, just days after the EPA approved this new project, a team of scientists has published a scathing new peer-reviewed study on the impacts of mountaintop removal in the journal Science that makes the case for why MTR should be put on hold indefinitely.
The study, the most comprehensive analysis of studies on mountaintop removal to date, documents both the environmental devastation the process brings to sites in Appalachia and the human health impacts in surrounding communities. The report's twelve authors, representing a wide range of scientific backgrounds from public health to ecosystem studies, recommend that the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Army Corps of Engineers put a hold on all new mountaintop mining permits until further studies and recommendations for impact mitigation can be conducted.
"The science is so overwhelming that the only conclusion one can reach is that mountaintop mining has to be stopped," said lead author Margaret Palmer, director of the Center for Environmental Science at the University of Maryland, at an event unveiling the report on Thursday. Palmer called the evidence of the harmful impacts "strong and irrefutable," and noted that there is no indication that mitigation efforts are successful in reversing the damage.
The public health implications are among the most startling findings in the report. Lower birth weights and higher rates of mortality, lung cancer, and chronic heart, lung, and kidney disease are found in areas where mining is heaviest. Michael Hendryx, director of the Rural Health Research Center at West Virginia University and a co-author of the report, said studies have found an average of 11,000 more premature deaths per 100,000 residents in the counties with the most mining.