Obama Administration Allows Streamlined Permits for Mountaintop Mining, Despite Evidence of Birth Defects
In previous posts, this blog has discussed the practice of "mountaintop removal mining" and its harm to your health. Mountaintop removal mining, or "mountaintop mining," involves a company stripping the top layer from a mountain so that it can reach the materials underneath, such as coal. The top layer gets disposed of in nearby mountain streams, unleashing harmful elements into the air and water, including mercury. Mercury in particular has been linked to health problems and birth defects.
Studies have found that residents of local communities near Appalachian mountaintop mines experienced higher rates of birth defects than residents elsewhere. Since these health effects became known, residents have increasingly expressed their opposition to the practice. Even so, the Obama administration is poised to bring back the streamlined process for obtaining a permit for strip mining. The administration had put a stop to it in 2009 after growing concerns about mountaintop removal.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began reissuing "general" permits, including one known as "Nationwide Permit 21" for surface coal mining. Under the Clean Water Act, general permits are meant to authorize "minor activities that are usually not controversial" and that would have only "minimal cumulative adverse effects" on the surrounding environment. One possible reason for the Obama administration's turnaround is that the permit has been revised to prevent valley fills -- where the excess soil is dumped into a nearby valley -- from being authorized by a streamlined permit. However, the Corps of Engineers may implement a policy waiving the amount of stream that can be buried under mountaintop soil if the Corp of Engineers concludes that the proposal before them would have little impact. Environmentalists warn that if they do so, there would be "insufficient protection" for stream loss.
Twice, a Chief District Court Judge, Joseph R. Goodwin, has issued rulings preventing the Corp of Engineers from issuing streamlined permits. It remains to be seen how the judge will respond to this latest version. Meanwhile, the Obama administration's willingness to bend the standards could make it tougher for anyone affected by mountaintop mining to file a successful lawsuit against the offender. If your child has a birth defect that you believe was caused by exposure to mercury from mountaintop mining while you were pregnant, you would want to obtain relief. To do so, you would need to show that the mining company was acting negligent by dumping soil laden with toxins into the mountain stream. That might be more difficult to argue if the company could show that it obtained a general permit for its actions and complied with all of the requirements. However, you would at least have several studies on your side that mountaintop removal mining is linked to a higher rate of birth defects. You could use it to make the case that the company's actions contributed directly to your child's birth defect.