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Review supports EPA science on mining damage

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- An independent science advisory team has issued a draft report that supports the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's conclusion that mountaintop removal is causing serious damage to Appalachian streams.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's independent Science Advisory Board earlier this week issued a draft of its report on a major study EPA released in April to summarize mountaintop removal's water quality impacts.

In a 75-page report, a 15-member panel of scientists from around the country agreed with EPA's conclusion that valley fills are increasing levels of electrical conductivity downstream from mining operations and threatening stream life.

"This independent review affirms that EPA is relying on sound analysis and letting science and only science guide our actions to protect human health and the environment," said Pete Silva, EPA's assistant administrator for water. "We will continue to follow the science and solicit input from all stakeholders as we safeguard water quality and protect the American people."

The advisory team report was issued on Tuesday, and EPA announced it in a news release on Thursday.

The scientific panel called on EPA to improve its study by including a better estimate of the "ultimate area to be affected" by Appalachian strip mining during different timeframes.

Also, the panel recommended that EPA include an explicit inventory of the diversity of freshwater habitats affected, improve the detail regarding expected loss of biodiversity, and make its assessments of the loss of ecosystem function to buried streams more precise.

The EPA advisory board examined a study that agency scientists put together in the wake of the Obama administration's crackdown on mountaintop removal, to summarize available science EPA officials said supported their efforts to reduce mining impacts.

Shortly after taking office in 2009, the Obama EPA began more rigorous reviews of Clean Water Act permits for mining operations and earlier this year published guidelines aimed at reducing pollution that causes dangerous increases in stream conductivity below valley fills.

Appalachian political leaders, including Democrats West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Rep. Nick Rahall have blasted EPA's actions, but that hasn't stopped Republican opponents of Manchin and Rahall from trying to paint both as being part of what the industry calls Obama's "war on coal."

EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson has said her agency's efforts are "not about ending coal mining," but "about ending coal mining pollution."

In its draft report, the Science Advisory Board panel said it agrees with EPA's conclusions "that there is strong evidence" that valley fills are harming downstream water quality and damaging aquatic life.

But, the panel also cautioned that electrical conductivity and total dissolved solids, or TDS, are "relative coarse indicators of water quality" and that EPA should "consider developing a more robust characterization" of water impacts downstream from mining operations.

The panel said EPA should more closely study impacts on aquatic life, and put more emphasis on the effects of selenium runoff from mining operations.

Read the report: http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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