- Mining Regulation
- Improving EPA Review of Appalachian Surface Coal Mining Operations
- EPA Acts to Reduce Harmful Impacts from Coal Mining
- Surface Coal Mining Activities under Clean Water Act Section 404
- NASA Earth Observatory
- US Army Corps of Engineers
- US Dept. of the Interior - Office of Surface Mining
- US Geological Survey
Nonprofit Organizations & State Programs
Related Mid-Atlantic Information
EPA Issues Final Guidance to Protect Water Quality in Appalachian Communities from Impacts of Mountaintop Mining / Agency to provide flexibility while protecting environment and public health (07/21/2011)
Assessment of Stream Ecosystem Structure and Function Under Clean Water Act Section 404 Associated With Review of Permits for Appalachian Surface Coal Mining, July 30, 2010 (PDF) (3 pp, 153K, About PDF)
On this page
- What is Mountaintop Mining?
- Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement
- Environmental Impacts
- Healthy Waters Priority
Mountaintop coal mining is a surface mining practice involving the:
- removal of mountaintops to expose coal seams, and
- disposing of the associated mining overburden in adjacent valleys -- "valley fills"
Valley fills occur in steep terrain where there are limited disposal alternatives. Mountaintop coal mining operations are concentrated in eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, western Virginia, and scattered areas of eastern Tennessee. In 1998, the US Department of Energy estimated that 28.5 billion tons of high quality coal remain in the Appalachia coal mining region. Restricting mountaintop mining to small watersheds could substantially impact the amount of extraction that takes place.
There are 5 basic steps to this method of mining:
- Layers of rock and dirt above the coal (called overburden) are removed.
- The upper seams of coal are removed with spoils placed in an adjacent valley.
- Draglines excavate lower layers of coal with spoils placed in spoil piles.
- Regrading begins as coal excavation continues.
- Once coal removal is complete, final regrading takes place and the area is revegetated.
Mining operations are regulated under the Clean Water Act (CWA), including discharges of pollutants to streams from valley fills (CWA Section 402) and the valley fill itself where the rock and dirt is placed in streams and wetlands (CWA Section 404). Coal mining operations are also regulated under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA).
EPA, in conjunction with the US Army Corps of Engineers, the US Department of the Interior's Office of Surface Mining and Fish & Wildlife Service, and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, prepared an environmental impact statement (draft EIS | final EIS) looking at the impacts of mountaintop mining and valley fills. This was done as part of a settlement agreement in the court case known as Bragg v. Robertson, Civ. No. 2:98-0636 (S.D. W.V.). The purpose was to evaluate options for improving agency programs that will contribute to reducing the adverse environmental impacts of mountaintop mining operations and excess spoil valley fills in Appalachia. The geographic focus was approximately 12 million acres encompassing most of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, western Virginia, and scattered areas of eastern Tennessee.
Based on studies of over 1200 stream segments impacted by mountaintop mining and valley fills the following environmental issues were noted:
- an increase of minerals in the water -- zinc, sodium, selenium, and sulfate levels may increase and negatively impact fish and macroinvertebrates leading to less diverse and more pollutant-tolerant species
- streams in watersheds below valley fills tend to have greater base flow
- streams are sometimes covered up
- wetlands are, at times inadvertently and other times intentionally, created; these wetlands provide some aquatic functions, but are generally not of high quality
- forests may become fragmented (broken into sections)
- the regrowth of trees and woody plants on regraded land may be slowed due to compacted soils
- grassland birds are more common on reclaimed mine lands as are snakes; amphibians such as salamanders, are less likely
- valley fills are generally stable
- cumulative environmental costs have not been identified
- there may be social, economic and heritage issues
Downstream effects of mountaintop coal mining: comparing biological conditions using family- and genus-level macroinvertebrate bioassessment tools (PDF) (21 pp, 1.1MB, About PDF) by Gregory J. Pond, Margaret E. Passmore, Frank A. Borsuk, Lou Reynolds, and Carole J. Rose, US EPA.
EPA's mid-Atlantic regional office has incorporated a new approach to maximizing efficiency in watershed protection and restoration by using the best available data to sharpen our focus and appropriately allocate and mobilize resources. Mining is one of 4 Priority Sectors in this Healthy Waters Priority approach. Efforts are being made to protect healthy waters and restore degraded waters within watersheds affected by coal mining.