In the wake of last month’s approval of 42 of 48 mountaintop removal and mining permits as “environmentally responsible,” the EPA, Department of Interior and Council on Environmental Quality today announced “unprecedented steps to reduce environmental impacts of mountaintop coal mining.”

Not mountaintop removal, mind you.

In the accompanying press release, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson declared: “Getting this right is important to coalfield communities that count on a livable environment, both during mining and after coal companies move to other sites.”

Here are the responses from those very coalfield residents and communities in Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio, along with an interview with Judy Bonds, the Goldman Prize winner with the Coal River Mountain Watch, and Teri Blanton, an activist in the eastern Kentucky coalfields.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Teri Blanton, Kentucky: “I would say today’s annnouncement is encouraging but we will have to wait and see if this is going to be good or bad. I would also like to add that we welcome them to come to Appalachia and hear from the communities being impacted by this method of mining. MTR is just a symptom of a much bigger problem this industry has worked outside of the law for over 100 years. Engineers who have been disgusted with the industry and that have joined our cause have said repeatedly that if there was a new regulation the industry would not work to abide by it but rather how to get around it. This has to stop. The penalties need to be significant to the point that it is not cheaper for them to pay a violation rather than to abide by the laws. But they also need to be aware that the industry plays head games with their few employees telling them anytime there is a law to protect human health and the environment in the coal fields that we are trying to take their jobs. I think these agencies need to be aware of these head games, especially when the coal miners come in numbers to protest any regulations. The workers are desperate because of the lack of opportunities for employment and are used as pawns for the industry.”

Cindy Rank, West Virginia Highlands: “Well, listening in on the press conference right now, all I can say is ‘been there, done that…’ Could have played a tape of conversations and discussions from 1998…. Now I suppose it’s a matter of watching, following, etc…to see if there’s any greater resolve and/or backbone to actually DO something with any of the good intentions that if they exist were fairly well hidden during the call.”

Judy Bonds, Coal River Mountain Watch: “The Obama administration’s announcement is pure political subterfuge. Scrutiny is another term for “smoke and mirrors.” Obama’s new motto is “Yes we can–blow up Appalachia.” How will Obama fix the problems that the residents must deal with? I am truly disappointed in President Obama’s bait and switch campaign lies. Obama says he wants to protect streams but a mountaintop removal permit is filling in streams. I challenge President Obama to bring his family and come to West Virginia and live near the blasting and breathe poison air and drink poison water that we mountaineers are forced to live with.”

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.

Paul Ryder, Ohio Citizens: “Obviously, the Washington Post wrote this editorial at the prompting of the White House. This means the Obama Administration is concerned about the political heat they are taking on this issue. That’s also the reason for the big reform announcement coming later today that they are really, really, really going to scrutinize mountaintop removal coal mining applications before they rubber-stamp them. This is becoming a pattern. On March 24, the U.S. EPA said it would insist on reviewing such applications, and then a few weeks later, approved the overwhelming majority of them. On April 26, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar held a press conference to announce a major mountaintop removal reform. Before the press conference was over, he had admitted that it would have no effect on mountaintop removal operations. These maneuvers by the Obama Administration are fooling no one.”

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

And from Rainforest Action Network, which will be sponsoring a number of actions in the Appalachia coalfields this summer:

The administration is pledging better oversight of mountain top removal mines but providing few specifics about how its oversight will change this destructive practice. This is a step in the right direction at a time when we need leaps.  

Rigorous enforcement of existing laws is of course needed and would be a welcome change, but does not in itself represent the true change that we need to transition immediately away from the destructive practice of mountaintop removal.

The Administration’s new plan does nothing to address the fact that nearly all mountaintop mining disposes of excess rock and debris in “valley fills” that bury hundreds of miles of streams, contaminate drinking water and wreck ecosystems.

Why is the Administration allowing massive environmental destruction of historic mountain ranges and essential drinking water for a relatively tiny amount of coal, a fraction of all the coal we use? This just doesn’t pan out in the cost-benefit analysis. 

Mountaintop removal, the world’s worst strip mining, is unacceptable.  Period. We don’t believe that MTR can be made “kinder and gentler”. Blowing the tops off of mountain ranges to harvest dirty coal harms the people and places of Appalachia, destroys the economic potential of the Appalachian region for clean energy opportunities and furthers the burning of climate killing coal. 

This is not a practice that needs to be reformed. It is a practice that needs to be abolished.

Q and A with Teri Blanton of Kentucky:

Q: Why are you concerned with today’s announcement?

TB: We have been trying to address mtr for more than 30 years in all the regulatory agencies want to do is knobble around the edges without really addressing the problem. I think mtr is about as barbaric a practice as I have ever seen and I do not see how it could be permitted at all.

Q: Do you agreed with the CEQ that certain existing laws can be strengthened to adequately enforce mountaintop removal?

TB: No, I do not think it should be permitted at all. The whole premise of SMCRA is that they are supposed to restore the landscape to what it was before mining with mtr it is clear they can’t. How do you replace the oldest mountains on earth? How do you restore one of the most diverse hardwood forest on earth? The practice should be stopped. to quote my Dear Friend Wendell Berry “how can you regulate an abomination”?

Q: Do you feel high level officials from the CEQ, EPA, or Department of Interior have made enough of an effort to visit and investigate mountaintop removal sites?

TB: I have personally guided hundreds of people to the eastern Kentucky coal fields and I have never seen anyone from any of those agencies, even though we have invited them. If they are touring mtr sites at all they certainly are not seeing what we the people think they should see or visited and talked to any of the impacted communities.

Q: Do you feel the views and voices of coalfield residences affected by mountaintop removal have been heard in Washington, DC?

TB: If they have been heard no one seems to be really acting on anything that we have asked for. We are saying the same things and carrying the same signs that our people before us were saying 40 years ago that brought about SMCRA. Unfortunately little has changed only gotten worse.

Q: Anything else to add?

TB: The Appalachian Mountains are a jewel to the United States and should be protected as such. Government officials from the coal fields all the way up to Washington DC have turned their backs on the people of Appalachia. It is time that this hideous crime against the culture and lives of my people be ended.

Q and A with Judy Bonds of Coal River Mountain Watch:

Q: Why are you concerned with today’s announcement?

JB: I am very concerned because I live in a coal extraction area and I see the devastating effects that strip mining has on the land and the people. We are living in a war zone and it seems like the Obama administration is aiding in the destruction of our homes and lives.

Q: Do you agreed with the CEQ that certain existing laws can be strengthened to adequately enforce mountaintop removal?

JB: N. I have an intimate relationship with the coal industry and in my experience the government has allowed the industry to poison us. Strip mining in steep slopes should be abolished and the evidence and science are there to support the devastating effects on mountaineers and mountains.

Q: Do you feel high level officials from the CEQ, EPA, or Department of Interior have made enough of an effort to visit and investigate mountaintop removal sites?

JB: No. We as citizens have invited high level officials to come and talk with affected citizens and let us take them on tour. As of yet–the actual citizens have not had the opportunity to meet with high level officials. Only the corrupt elected officials and the coal barons have had access to high level officials. A request from coal field residents in the middle of March for Lisa Jackson to meet with affected citizens has gone unanswered and has been ignored.

Q: Do you feel the views and voices of coalfield residences affected by mountaintop removal have been heard in Washington, D.C.?

JB. No. I think we are being ignored because we are considered to be poor, ignorant people.

Q: Anything else to add?

JB: We feel betrayed by America’s leaders. We have been used and abused and this is NOT just an environmental issue–it is a human rights issue as well. We feel as if we are living in a war zone and we are tired of it. Strip mining and mountaintop removal in Appalachia are the best examples of the hypocritical behavior of politicians in America. We will not shut up and they will go down in history as villians. This will be Obama’s abomination. I urge Obama to revisit this issue and actually visit and talk with affected citizens.