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The EPA’s veto on the Spruce Mine Number 1 project’s permit and the war on coal

Updated on November 8, 2014


With aggressive environmental agenda aiming at crushing jobs and shutting down businesses, the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are kindling anger even from labor unions, the Democratic Party’s most loyal supporters [1]. Several influential unions are campaigning to demand the EPA to alleviate regulations imposed on coal industry. The coal industry has already been heavily regulated by various federal and state laws. Nevertheless, the EPA has aggressively transcended its role, cumulating by its action to veto a previously approved permit that has been issued for Arch Coal’s Spruce Mine Number 1 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps). In addition to making serious scientific flaws in its final determination, the EPA’s decision also shakes the whole economy, and causes adverse impacts on the coal industry, which is vital to the Appalachian states.

Regulation on coal surface mining

Surface coal mining is the mining technique used to safely and efficiently recover the coal seams near the surface in a steep terrain. During the practice, the rock situated above and between the seams are removed and then placed on previously mined areas or within engineered fill areas. Numerous federal regulations exist to regulate mining activities including the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act. No mining activity can occur without first obtaining a permit. All companies must submit a comprehensive permit application containing information about the company and the proposed project, and the process is administered by the Corps based on inputs from the EPA.

Impacts of the EPA's veto on Spruce Mine Number 1 project's permit

However, all of those regulations still seem to be insufficient for the EPA. In January 2011, it decided to go beyond its reach to revoke a previously approved permit that has been issued by the Corps regarding the Spruce Mine Number 1 project. It also actively and so far successfully convinces the Supreme Court to reject Arch Inc.’s appeal against the EPA’s decision. The EPA has only used its veto authority, under Section 404(c), 13 times since 1972, but none of the previous veto involved a surface coal mining project or an issued and in-used permit [2]. Arch, Inc. has expected to make an additional $250 million investment for the project, and created 250 well-paid jobs. At the House Oversight and Government Reform’s hearing on EPA’s Appalachian Energy Permitorium (July 14th), Congresswoman Shelly Moore Capito of West Virginia pointed out the negative impacts of such a veto:

This action has resulted in hundreds of jobs not being created. Additionally, the retroactive revocation of a permit is particularly concerning because it causes great uncertainty across a variety of industries. Coal operators can no longer safely make investments because the EPA has removed regulatory certainty from the permitting process by making operators wonder whether their permits will be revoked after they have invested millions of dollars in the development of reserves

In addition to destroying hundreds of jobs and foregoing million dollars of GDP generated, the EPA’s veto sends out a message that the agency is allowed to revoke every similar permit held by other entity, and businesses, which supports roughly 220 billion in economic activity every year [3]. With this precedent, businesses no longer enjoy the sanctity of private contracts with the U.S. government.

Other flaws in the EPA's reasonings

Furthermore, the EPA is also accused of overstating the negative environmental impacts of the project in various parts of the final determination. The EPA argued that the Spruce Mine number 1 permit should be vetoed is because it causes unacceptable adverse impacts on wildlife including amphibians, salamanders, birds, bats, mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies [4]. None of these species even makes it to the endangered species list, and the EPA obviously puts them before human’s job creation and employment. The EPA asserts that five species of fish would be buried, despite the fact that no fish were found at the site [5]. Regarding to downstream water quality, the EPA claims that “6.6 miles of high quality stream” will be buried because of the construction of valley fills, but it conceals the fact that 99.6 percent of the streams are intermittent or ephemeral, that they scored “below average” on a habitat assessment, and that they fall well short of meeting West Virginia’s definition of “high quality” streams [6]. Although the level of selenium discharging from Spruce Mine 1 is not high enough to violate the state of West Virginia’s selenium standards, which were previously approved by the EPA. Even still, the EPA insists that it is too high and unacceptable. This is an apparent abuse of power by the EPA.

Regarding the level of conductivity, the EPA determines that the post-mining conductivity level at the mining site would be considerably higher than what the EPA is deemed “normal level”, causing adverse impacts on specific fauna caused by changes in water quality. In addition to the fact that the EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson, admitted herself that “no or very few valley fills that are going to meet this standard,” [7] electrical conductivity is a non-specific parameter that does not specifically characterize water quality or define its impact on insect or aquatic life. It is therefore an inappropriate parameter for use as a regulatory metric. Further, the conductivity value established as a threshold by the EPA is commonly found to be exceeded in other regions, where it is not regulated [8].

Not only do the EPA’s arguments for vetoing the Spruce Mine Number 1’s permit reveal many flaws, the EPA also inadequately describes its involvement in different stages of the Spruce permit approval, which took place for more than 10 years, meaning that the EPA already had ample opportunities to address its concerns [9]. The omission hides the fact that many of the environmental problems the EPA suggests had already been tackled and resolved before the permit was granted. In order to comply with the EPA’s previous suggestions, the project was scaled back from the original plan of spreading over 3113 acres to a 2,300-acre operation, and changes were made to reduce the downstream impacted from more than 10 miles to over 6 miles with only 1 valley fill. Therefore, the EPA cannot justify its revocation by claiming that the Arch Company failed to fulfill its proposal.

Do you believe that the EPA's Spruce mine veto is an overreach?

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World coal usage in a day

Kentucky Electricity by sources
Kentucky Electricity by sources
West Virginia electricity by sources
West Virginia electricity by sources

The U.S coal facts

  • The U.S. has nearly 262 billion tons of recoverable coal reserves
  • Coal generated 50% of total U.S electricity
  • On average, each person in the U.S. uses 3.7 tons of coal each year
  • More than 90% of coal is consumed to generate electricity
  • U.S. coal mining directly employs nearly 134,000 people
  • For each coal mining job, an additional 3.5 jobs are created elsewhere in the economy.
  • Appalachia surface coal mining accounts for 10 percent of all coal mined in the U.S.
  • The U.S is the number 1 coal producer in the world, followed by India, Indonesia, Australia, and China.


In conclusion, at a time of shaky economic growth, the EPA’s actions impose even greater uncertainty on economic activities. Coal mining plays a critical role in the economy of Appalachian states. Kentucky, for example, in 2006, coal is responsible for an estimated of $528 million in state revenues. The coal industry creates about 17,000 direct jobs, and more than 50,000 indirect jobs [10], paying about $61,000 a year per job. About 94% of Kentucky’s electricity is generated from coal, keeping electricity price in Kentucky one of the lowest in the United States [11]. In West Virginia, in 2009, coal industry provides about 30,000 direct jobs, including miners, mine contractors, coal preparation plant employees and mine supply companies [12]. As indicated by a research, for each coal mining job, 3.5 more additional jobs are created indirectly in the economy, meaning that coal can indirectly adds up to 105,000 more jobs. Coal also contributes more than $3.5 billion annually to the gross state product [13]. Coal companies are striving to create sustainable jobs and increase output, but the EPA and President Obama with his “war on coal” want to destroy their efforts to protect flies and invertebrates.



[2] Mountaintop Mining: Background on Current Controversies, Claudia Copeland, Jan 2011


[4] Environmental Protection Agency, Final Determination of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Pursuant to § 404(c) of the Clean Water Act Concerning the Spruce No. 1 Mine, Logan County, West Virginia, p. 6.,7

[5] EPA Guilty of Environmental Hyperbole in Mountaintop Mining Veto, William Yeatman, Feb, 2011

[6] EPA Guilty of Environmental Hyperbole in Mountaintop Mining Veto, William Yeatman, Feb, 2011




[10]Melissa Fry Konty and Jason Bailey, The Impact of Coal on the Kentucky State Budget, June 2009





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