Judge rules that the EPA stepped on state authority when promulgating waste rules for coal mines


From the Associated Press (John Raby) via The Denver Post:

U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton in Washington ruled that the EPA infringed on the authority given to state regulators by federal clean- water and surface-mining laws. A coal mining industry coalition sued the EPA and Administrator Lisa Jackson, and the lawsuit was joined by West Virginia and Kentucky.

The ruling represents the latest setback to the Obama administration’s attempts to crack down on mountaintop removal coal mining.

Last year, the EPA revised standards issued in April 2010 by tightening guidelines on the practice of dumping waste from surface mine blasting into Appalachian valley waterways. Critics say that practice destroys the environment. The mining industry defends it as an efficient way to produce cheap power and employ thousands in well-paying jobs.

The EPA had written that the fundamental premise of its new guidelines was that “no discharge of dredged or fill material may be permitted” under any of three conditions: if the nation’s waters would be “significantly degraded”; if it causes or contributes to violations of a state’s water quality standard; or “if a practicable alternative exists that is less damaging to the aquatic environment.”

The National Mining Association, one of the plaintiffs, denounced the guidelines as a “jobs destroyer” and hailed Walton’s decision as a way to get miners back to work “by allowing the state permitting agencies to do their jobs.”

Meanwhile, it’s the forty third anniversary of the Time Magazine article that became a call to arms for conservationists. The EPA grew out of the legislation from that time. Here’s a the August 1, 1969 article from Time. Here’s an excerpt:

Cleveland’s great industries have lately made efforts to dump fewer noxious effluents into the Cuyahoga. If their record is still not good, the city’s has been far worse. Whenever it rains hard, the archaic sanitary storm system floods the sewer mains, sending untreated household wastes into the river. Sometimes the old mains break, as recently happened on the Big Creek interceptor line. Each day for the past month, 25 million gallons of raw sewage have cascaded from a ruptured pipe, spilling a gray-green torrent into the Cuyahoga and thence into Lake Erie.

Some lake! Industrial wastes from Detroit’s auto companies, Toledo’s steel mills and the paper plants of Erie, Pa., have helped turn Lake Erie into a gigantic cesspool. Of 62 beaches along its U.S. shores, only three are rated completely safe for swimming. Even wading is unpleasant; as many as 30,000 sludge worms carpet each square yard of lake bottom.

Each day, Detroit, Cleveland and 120 other municipalities fill Erie with 1.5 billion gallons of inadequately treated wastes, including nitrates and phosphates. These chemicals act as fertilizer for growths of algae that suck oxygen from the lower depths and rise to the surface as odoriferous green scum. Commercial and game fish—blue pike, whitefish, sturgeon, northern pike—have nearly vanished, yielding the waters to trash fish that need less oxygen. Weeds proliferate, turning water frontage into swamp. In short, Lake Erie is in danger of dying by suffocation…

Like Apple Pie. “We have some of the lowest sewer tax rates in the country,” says Stefanski. “I figured we’d double the rates to amortize our bonds.” To persuade the people to pay, Stefanski enlisted newspaper support, lined up citizen groups and got 33 suburban governments to endorse the plan. “It became like apple pie and motherhood,” he recalls. “No one could be against clean water.” Last fall Clevelanders approved the bond issue by a vote of 2 to 1, giving it more “yes” votes than any other proposal on the ballot. In five years, Cleveland should have the best sewage system in the U.S., one capable of handling even industrial wastes.

The accomplishment, huge as it is, only fixes the price of optimism. Unfortunately, water pollution knows no political boundaries. The Cuyahoga can be cleaned up in Cleveland, but as long as other cities keep dumping wastes upriver, it will remain exactly what it is today—an open sewer filling Lake Erie with scummy wavelets, sullen reminders that even a great lake can die.

More water pollution coverage here.

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