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Today, a federal judge in West Virginia issued a ruling that's another blow to the controversial mining practice known as mountaintop removal. That's where coal companies blast away tons of rock and dirt and dump the waste into valleys and streams. The ruling blocks the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from issuing so-called nationwide permits, and it requires more detailed plans for each individual mine.
Scott Finn of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports on the bitter fight over mountaintop removal.
SCOTT FINN: Blair, West Virginia, is literally at the center of the debate over mountaintop removal. Disabled coalminer Alex Tomblin blames the mines for poisoning his well. So, he drives to one of the areas few remaining natural springs to collect drinking water.
Mr. ALEX TOMBLIN: This water is perfect water. It takes approximately three years to filter down through the soil to come out right here.
FINN: Tomblin dips his cup into the small pool of water where you can see a yellow salamander and a crawdad as big as a man's thumb.
Mr. TOMBLIN: And taste it to see if you can't taste good water.
FINN: Dozens of families used to live in Blair. Now, just a few are left. Another mountaintop removal mine is expanding into this area, and when it does, Tomblin expects the water here to go bad, too.
Water is at the heart of a recent EPA challenge of two proposed mining permits, one just a few miles from Blair. This sort of questioning was unheard of during the Bush administration. In two letters, the EPA says it has serious concerns about the cumulative affect of so much mining.
Mr. JOE LOVETT (Director, Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment): These letters are not the end of mountaintop removal mining. We hope that they're the first step.
FINN: That's Joe Lovett, director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment. He's been fighting mountaintop removal in the courts for more than a decade. He says the practice violates the federal Clean Water Act, because it unleashes a slew of pollutants and has buried hundreds of streams altogether.
Mr. LOVETT: We're losing forever now more that 2,000 miles of mountain streams in this region. There is no practice in this country that's as environmentally destructive as large scale surface mining.
FINN: In these new EPA letters, Lovett sees a real shift in federal policy. That's probably the only thing that Lovett and Steve Walker agree upon.
(Soundbite of machinery)
FINN: Walker's business sells and services mine equipment and employs about 800 people. On the wall, he displays a 2002 photo of when President Bush visited his shop. Walker says coal production is already down because of the recession. And now, there's this new scrutiny from the Obama administration.
Mr. STEVE WALKER (Owner, Walker Machinery): It's just the EPA, for some reason, they've only been there for, gee, I mean, six weeks? And all of a sudden, they've become smarter than everybody else. So, you've got to suspect that somebody up there is wanting to do away with coal.
FINN: The EPA denies that and even said it anticipates the bulk of the permits will be approved. But in an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal last week, the president himself called the environmental consequences of mine runoff horrendous. Talk like that worries surface miners like Roger Horton. He makes $74,000 a year, a small fortune for Logan County, and he's started a group called Citizens for Coal.
Mr. ROGER HORTON (Surface Miner): Everyone is scared absolutely to death. And we all got to talking, all got together, and we started calling our congressmen and our senators, and wanting some type of answer. And it's been nothing but absolute turmoil. And still, I still don't understand what they're doing.
FINN: From the front porch of his new, three-story house, he can see the interstate highway, built with the same methods as a mountaintop removal mine.
Opponents of mountaintop removal say curbing the practice would actually create more jobs for underground miners. It's a theory that may be tested in the near future.
For NPR News, I'm Scott Finn in Charleston, West Virginia.
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