After decades of financial decadence and total dominance over political processes, coal companies have hit desperate times. Cheap, abundant natural gas recently emerged, driving demand for coal for energy production and coal prices down. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally moved to more stringent emissions limitations for coal-fired power plants under the Clean Air Act. Concurrently, the public demanded improvements in safety technology after several tragic mining accidents resulted from lax safety measures and a corporate culture of recklessness. During this time, environmental citizen groups worked to ensure that mining companies no longer violated the Clean Water Act (CWA), particularly with the mountaintop removal (MTR) mining method. Mining companies that previously enjoyed lax enforcement of water violations by state environmental protection agencies and the EPA can no longer discharge unlawful levels of pollutants into streams without facing lawsuits by citizen groups. Mining companies pay steep penalties for these violations. Courts are increasingly skeptical of the practice of MTR and its compatibility with the CWA, concluding that what the law requires is sometimes contrary to “substantial scientific evidence.” Academic research on stream form and function concluded that streams buried through MTR cannot be adequately mitigated or replaced by manmade streams under United States Army Corps of Engineers permitting. Coal companies rely upon stream mitigation as an essential component for the continued viability of MTR. The environmental challenges over the last decade have been expensive. Mine site water treatment costs millions of dollars to construct and operate. Several large coal companies have posted significant quarterly losses. One large company has filed for bankruptcy and agreed to cease MTR mining. Layoffs abound. Despite the grim outlook for coal companies, Appalachian coal-mining states face worse situations.
Surber, S. J. (2013). Writing check that the state can't cash: Water pollution from coal mining and the imminent and inevitable failure of the West Virginia Special Reclamation Water Fund. Tulane Environmental Law Journal, 27(1), 1-42.