What EPA is Doing to Reduce the Adverse Impacts of Surface Coal Mining in Appalachia

On this page, you can learn about how EPA implements environmental laws that affect surface coal mining in Appalachia, and about other EPA efforts to reduce the adverse impacts of coal mining:

Interagency and Cross-Program Guidance

National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA)

In 2005, EPA, in conjunction with:

  • the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,
  • the U.S. Department of the Interior's
    • Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and
    • Fish and Wildlife Service, and
  • the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection,
issued an environmental impact statement looking at the impacts of surface coal 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 contribute to reducing the adverse environmental impacts of mountaintop mining operations and excess spoil valley fills in Appalachia. The geographic focus has been approximately 12 million acres encompassing:
  • most of eastern Kentucky,
  • southern West Virginia,
  • western Virginia,
  • eastern Ohio, and
  • scattered areas of eastern Tennessee.

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Regulating under the Clean Water Act

Mountaintop mining operations are regulated under the Clean Water Act (CWA).

Note that all mines are required to manage stormwater runoff. Some states require mines to obtain coverage under their respective stormwater general permits, while other states include stormwater provisions in a mine's individual permit.
  • Water quality criteria and standards:  NPDES permits also incorporate limits to meet water quality criteria and other water quality standards, as needed. Section 304 of the CWA authorizes EPA to develop recommended water quality criteria that reflect the latest scientific understanding of the relationship between the amount of a pollutant and its potential impacts on human health and the environment. These criteria may apply to contaminated surface waters from mountaintop mining operations if they are either adopted by states and approved by EPA or promulgated by EPA.

EPA's recommended water quality criteria are not rules, nor do they automatically become part of a state's water quality standards. States and tribes must adopt into their standards water quality criteria that are scientifically sound and protect the designated uses of the water bodies in each state. These criteria can include scientifically defensible criteria that are different from EPA's national recommended criteria, as long as the criteria are scientifically sound and protective of the designated use.

Water quality criteria are not effective under the Clean Water Act until they have been either adopted into a state’s water quality standards and approved by EPA or promulgated by EPA.

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Enforcement Activities

Southern Coal Corporation Clean Water Settlement.  In September 2016, EPA and the DOJ announced a settlement with Southern Coal Corporation and 26 affiliated mining companies that requires the companies to make comprehensive upgrades to their coal mining and processing operations to prevent discharges of polluted wastewater from their mines in Appalachia. Learn more about this settlement.

Imminent and substantial endangerment. Under most major environmental authorities, we have the authority to take action when pollution is presenting an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health.  These authorities include CWA sections 311 and 504; section 1431 of the Safe Drinking Water Act; Clean Air Act sections 112 and 303; RCRA section 7003; and CERCLA sections 104 and 106.

National Enforcement Initiative.  Mining and mineral processing facilities generate more toxic and hazardous waste than any other industrial sector, costing billions of dollars to address the public health and environmental threats to communities. Through the National Enforcement Initiative: Reducing Pollution from Mineral Processing Operations, we have reduced the risk of mining waste contamination of drinking water, rivers, and streams, and work to cleanup mining sites across the nation.  Learn more about the NEI.

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EPA research on surface coal mining examines the impacts of mining on headwater streams and other water resources near mining sites. This research lends scientific support to guidance documents for land managers to provide for mining flexibility while protecting the environment and public health.

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Partnership Programs

Coalbed Methane Outreach Program

Since 1994, EPA's Coalbed Methane Outreach Program (CMOP) has worked cooperatively with the coal mining industry in the United States – and other major coal-producing countries – to reduce emissions of methane from coal mining. By helping to identify and implement methods to recover and use methane instead of emitting it to the atmosphere, CMOP has played a key role in the United States' efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address global climate change.

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