In response to citizen lawsuits, federal agencies had agreed a decade ago under the Clinton administration to work on new mining restrictions. But those plans were dropped in favor of moves to streamline the permitting process for mine operators after George W. Bush became president in January 2001.
Last week's EPA announcement was praised by environmental groups such as the Sierra Club.
"After years of the coal industry making molehills out of Appalachia's mountains, these new guidelines will reduce the destruction caused by mountaintop removal, and communities will be able to focus on building a clean energy economy," said Sierra Club President Michael Brune.
But the National Mining Association blasted EPA for putting the new guidelines into effect before allowing a public review and comment period, adding that federal officials continue to point to "new science that has been found to be both flawed and limited in its findings and application."
The new EPA report found, among other things, that:
The new EPA report noted that more than 380,000 acres of Appalachia was "deforested" by surface mining between 1992 and 2002. By 2012, that area was expected to have increased to 1.4 million acres. "The estimated habitat loss included a three-fold increase in the area of former headwater stream watersheds classified as land use/land cover databases as 'surface mining/quarries/gravel pits,'" the EPA report said.
But, the EPA report noted that the natural condition of the Appalchian landscape is dominated by "interior forest."
"A decrease in forest cover followed by conversion to grasslands or other land cover has the potential to shift the fauna of the region from that found in intact, high-elevation forests to one dominated by grassland and edge dwelling species," the EPA report said.
Citing previous studies by U.S. Forest Service experts, the EPA report found that fragmentation is causing interior forest to be lost at a rate up to five times faster than the overall forest lost in the region to mountaintop removal.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.