Government documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act have revealed that the Bush administration members of the United States Department of the Interior purposely ignored scientific studies that were conducted by five separate federal and state agencies.
The federal and state agencies prepared an evaluation of environmental impact statements (EIS) on mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia. The agencies agreed to do the study as part of a settlement of a lawsuit brought by environmentalists and residents of coalfield communities.
The National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) of 1969 states the explicit purpose of an EIS is to list alternative possibilities, with a specific technical assessment of their environmental implications, for practices being reviewed. The stated purpose of the mountaintop removal EIS was even more specific; the federal agencies agreed that the EIS would recommend policies and procedures to "minimize, to the maximum extent practicable, the adverse environmental effects to waters of the United States and to fish and wildlife resources from mountaintop removal mining operations, and to environmental resources that could be affected by the size and location of fill material in valley fill sites."
Documents and interviews with the Union of Concerned Scientists confirmed that J. Stephen Griles, the deputy secretary of the Department of Interior and a former lobbyist for the National Mining Association clearly instructed agency scientists and staff to focus on "centralizing and streamlining coal-mining permitting."
It was Griles' orders that told the agency to drop consideration of any options for more environmentally benign alternatives to current practices despite the enormous amount of scientific evidence of environmental degradation from the practice of MTR.
The environmental burden of mountaintop removal mining
Mountaintop removal mining has been widely used to extract coal throughout the Appalachia. The technique uses huge machines, called draglines, to remove mountain ridges and expose coal seams in the Central Appalachia. In this process, coal companies dump rock, overburden and debris into nearby hollows, burying miles of mountain headwaters.
Scientists working for various federal agencies have documented a wide range of destructive environmental impacts from MTR. Seven percent of Appalachian forests have been cut down and more than 1,200 miles of streams across the region have been buried or polluted between 1985 and 2001. According to the federal government's scientific analysis, mountaintop removal mining, if it continues unabated, will cause a projected loss of more than 1.4 million acres by the end of the next decade with a severe impact on fish, wildlife and bird species, not to mention a devastating effect on neighboring communities.
The EIS contained 5,000 pages of analysis that documented destruction. A Fish and Wildlife Service scientist stated that the Bush administration team ordered technical language rating the environmental impacts as "significant" or as "severe" be stripped from the editing process. The Bush Administration "steering committee" of the EIS process removed an economic analysis prepared by independent contractors that showed the limits on the size of individual valley fills would not have a negative economic impact on the region's electric costs. The steering committee discredited the analysis for what is known as fatally flawed methodology.
While administration officials included extensive scientific documentation of the negative consequences of the mining practice in the EIS, they violated a central tenet of an EIS by offering no proposed alternatives to mitigate the worst environmental consequences of mountaintop removal mining.
"We were flabbergasted and outraged," says one high-ranking staff scientist at the FWS who had worked extensively on the preparation of the technical analysis for the EIS. This official, whose name is withheld on request, explains that, in response to Griles' directive, the Bush administration steering committee called a meeting in October 2001 at which agency scientists and administrators were told that the draft EIS "was going to be taken in a different direction."
Cindy Tibbot, an FWS biologist involved in the EIS process, was one of many agency scientists who expressed outrage about Griles' directive, stating in an internal memo, "It's hard to stay quiet about this when I really believe we're doing the public and the heart of the Clean Water Act a great disservice." As Tibbot put it, the only alternatives offered in Griles' proposed EIS would be "alternative locations to house the rubber stamp that issues mining permits."
EIS technical studies carried out by the agencies have documented adverse impacts to aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, yet the proposed alternatives presented offer no substantive means of addressing these impacts. The alternatives and actions, as currently written, belie four years of work and the accumulated evidence of environmental harms, and would substitute permit process tinkering for meaningful and measurable change. Publication of a draft EIS with this approach, especially when the public has seen earlier drafts, will further damage the credibility of the agencies involved.
The recently obtained documents reveal that staff at other agencies involved in the EIS process was equally concerned with the administration's approach to the EIS. Ray George, an EPA official from West Virginia's Region 3, expressed concern that his agency's "science findings are not reflected in [the draft EIS's] conclusions/recommendations."
Another EPA official, John Forren, underscored the severity of the problem. "It's one thing," Forren wrote, "to include such alternatives in the [draft] EIS and not choose one as a preferred alternative or not choose one as the selected action in the Record of Decision." As Forren continued, however, it is quite another thing to offer no meaningful alternatives at all. Such a tactic, he warned, would "give the appearance we’re obscuring and de-emphasizing the [alternatives] that address directly environmental impacts," leaving the entire EIS process open to legal challenge and public outcry.
"In this case, the administration eliminated all environmental protective alternatives. The simple fact is, that is scientifically and intellectually dishonest," stated Jim Hecker, the environmental enforcement director at Trial Lawyer for Public Justice, who filed the Freedom of Information Act request for the documents.
During the EIS official comment period, representatives from 50 environmental groups across the country wrote a letter charging that the draft EIS fails to comply with the NEPA, stating that: "We find the draft EIS' failure to provide an alternative proposal that would provide better regulation of mountaintop removal mining to protect the environment unacceptable and inappropriate."
Former Maryland State Senator Gerald Winegrad, vice president of the American Bird Conservancy and co-author of the letter, contends, "the political process cannot function without an honest scientific assessment of the problem. But in this case, the EIS process has been usurped and its scientific underpinnings destroyed."