NASHVILLE - A Tennessee environmental group is concerned that new federal guidelines on surface mining and water quality offer fewer protections for the state's waterways than the interim rules they replaced.
Cathie Bird, a member of Statewide Organizing for Community Empowerment, said she is disappointed that Environmental Protection Administration guidelines released Thursday exclude Tennessee from benchmarks that take into account the electrical conductivity of streams when gauging how polluted they are.
Bird lives in rural Campbell County near the Zeb Mountain mine, which was the subject of a lawsuit over selenium discharges.
The ability of a stream to conduct an electrical charge is a good measure of the level of dissolved salts in the water, according to an appendix attached to the EPA guidance. Dissolved salts, especially salts of sulfate and bicarbonate, can kill aquatic life.
Although the guidelines offer other ways of measuring pollution, Bird said some of those measures can miss pollutants that they are not specifically designed to detect.
For the time being, the benchmarks for electrical conductivity will apply only to the regions of West Virginia and Kentucky where the EPA conducted studies to validate their use. They will not apply to the remainder of the six-state region covered by the guidelines - Tennessee, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia - until studies can be conducted there.
Asked when that might happen, EPA spokeswoman Stacy Kika said in an email, "EPA does not have a schedule ... but we expect that process will move forward in the remaining states during the next year."
The new guidance is part of an effort by the EPA to more strictly enforce the federal Clean Water Act, specifically with regard to pollution from surface mining. Surface mining includes the practice of blowing apart mountaintops to expose coal seams. Nearby valleys and streams often are filled with the waste.
Valley fills are not permitted in Tennessee, according to Paul Schmierbach, a program manager for the state Department of Environment and Conservation. He oversees the program that issues permits to mining companies for the discharge of wastewater. The state program is overseen by the EPA.
Schmierbach said TDEC has been trying to address EPA's concerns about conductivity since the federal agency issued interim guidelines in April 2010, but he does not think conductivity is as big an issue in Tennessee as in states where entire valleys are filled with mining waste.
Schmierbach said he hasn't thoroughly read the new guidelines but said the interim rules were "somewhat confusing and caused delay in obtaining EPA approval of ... permits."
To SOCM organizer Ann League, that's probably a good thing. From her perspective, the guidance has meant "closer scrutiny to the impact of mining on water quality." That includes mining companies having to make changes to reduce the environmental impacts of their work.
But she also thinks the guidance falls short of what's needed. It states in its introduction that "it is not a rule, and hence it is not binding and lacks the force of law." Instead, it is meant to help officials issuing permits to comply with the law. "We feel rulemaking would be much, much stronger," League said.