Environmental groups petition EPA to set air-pollution limits on coals mines

A coalition of national environmental groups Wednesday petitioned U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Lisa Jackson to begin limiting air pollution from coal mines nationwide, including several large mines in Colorado.

Earthjustice, WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Environmental Integrity Project and the Sierra Club all called for the EPA to use its authority under the Clean Air Act to for the first time begin listing coal mines as a source of air pollution and mandating best practices for limiting emissions.

In a release Wednesday, the groups pointed out that the EPA regulates emissions from other mining operations and coal-related facilities – including gravel pits, coal-fired power plants and coal processing facilities – but has never put such limitations on coal-mining operations.

“Coal mines have gotten a free pass for far too long,” Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity said in the release. “It’s essential to establish these common-sense rules to reduce air pollution from coal mines – including closed mines no longer producing coal – while we transition as rapidly as possible away from reliance on dirty, dangerous, coal-fired power.”

Environmentalists in Colorado have previously sued the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to compel the agency to consider the impacts of venting methane gas when permitting coal mines in the state. The groups would like to see coal companies capture or at the very least burn off methane gas, which is 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Most coal-mining operations, however, say it’s too expensive, impractical or even dangerous to try to capture or flare methane, which in other parts of the state is drilled for at great expense. In coal mines, however, a buildup of the gas can lead to explosions such as the one at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners in April.

Methane venting has made headlines since then as a safety issue, but environmentalists say it’s just as critical an issue on the global-warming front, with coal-mining companies wastefully discharging valuable natural gas into the atmosphere.

Colorado has drafted its own set of roadless rules for managing largely undeveloped areas of federal land in the state. It includes exemptions for coal mine expansion and methane venting at operations along the North Fork of the Gunnison River.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in May granted a road-building exemption for Colorado’s Elk Creek Mine. The nearby West Elk Mine, also seeking to expand, did not receive such an exemption.

Environmental groups Wednesday noted that the EPA has set limits on methane emissions from landfills and that doing the same for coals mines would not be prohibitively expensive, according to the EPA’s own data. EPA estimates put the cost of eliminating 85 percent of all U.S. coal mine methane emissions at $15 a ton.

“Methane is a dangerous gas, but it’s probably the most cost-effective to control,” Aaron Isherwood of the Sierra Club said in the release. “The health, safety and climate benefits of reducing methane from coal mines are simply too important to ignore.”

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