We've been to the mountain top--and removed it

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Is the end of mountain top removal finally on what's left of the Appalachian horizon? MTR is a particularly brutal form of coal extraction. Cynically exploiting a loophole in legislation aimed at preventing the ravages of strip mining, in retrospect relatively minor in comparison to outcome of a typical MTR project, the coal extraction method literally means the complete devastation of hills and mountains. It is most often practiced in West Virginia and Kentucky, but MTR projects have also afflicted Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolinain recent years.

MTR meant big profits for some coal processors but created few jobs and little state revenue. It did leave behind devastated landscapes (closer to moonscapes really) and long-term environmental headaches in the form of blotted-out streams and creeks. When the tops of the mountains are removed and the debris and byproduct of the extration is simply dumped into what had been the mountain's valley. It's this "fill" method that has drawn the attention of the EPA as a clear violation of the Clean Water Act. The fill typically obliterated streams and water flows in the valley, diminishing the topography's ability to naturally regenerate and "sponge" rainwater.

Over the last eight years federal clean water law was simply ignored, and MTR permits were approved without question during the Bush administration. But new leadership at the Federal Environmental Protection Agency has meant new scrutiny. On September 11, the EPA suspended 79 MTR permits in four states pending further review of their likely impact on water quality.

The EPA's actions were welcomed by local and national groups that have criticized the Obama administration for not acting sooner on MTR. These groups hope to end MTR entirely now that it's possible the EPA may be ready to live up to its acronym.

The EPA's action "creates a welcome reprieve for the people who live below these enormous mining sites and the waste dumps they put into our waters," said Judy Bonds, co-director of Coal River Mountain Watch. "We will continue our fight for a total, complete reprieve for our children and for our beloved mountains and streams."

"We applaud this action by the Obama administration to return the rule of law to the Appalachian coalfields," said Mary Anne Hitt, Deputy Director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. "The next step in the administration's review process should confirm that these permits cannot be issued. The ultimate solution to protecting communities, mountains and streams is to now revise Bush administration rules to make clear that mining and other industrial waste cannot be used to fill streams."