EPA Withholds 79 Mountaintop Mining Permits for Extended Review
WASHINGTON, DC, September 11, 2009 (ENS) - The U.S. EPA has identified 79 proposed surface coal mining projects in four Appalachian states for further, detailed reviews of their permit applications.

In a finding that pleased environmentalists and coalfield residents in central and southern Appalachia, the agency's initial review concluded that all of the proposed projects would likely cause water quality impacts requiring additional review under the Clean Water Act.

EPA's initial review raised environmental concerns regarding each of the 79 proposed projects. The agency says its initial findings do not mean these 79 permits may not be authorized, or that EPA is placing a moratorium on surface coal mining.

The extended reviews will be carried out under an enhanced coordination process between EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed under an interagency Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on surface coal mining facilitated by the Council on Environmental Quality and signed by the EPA, the Corps, and the Department of Interior.

The Corps and EPA will work together during this review process to ensure compliance with the Clean Water Act and the protection of this nation's public health and environment.

"The administration pledged earlier this year to improve review of mining projects that risked harming water quality," said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. "Release of this preliminary list is the first step in a process to assure that the environmental concerns raised by the 79 permit applications are addressed and that permits issued are protective of water quality and affected ecosystems."

A mountaintop removal coal mine looms over a small West Virginia community. (Photo by Vivian Stockman courtesy OVEC)
The initial reviews were conducted in light of available project-specific information, the existing environmental condition of the watershed in which the project is proposed to be located, and the nature of environmental impacts predicted to result from construction and operation of the proposed mine.

"We look forward to working closely with the Army Corps of Engineers, with the involvement of the mining companies, to achieve a resolution of EPA's concerns that avoids harmful environmental impacts and meets our energy and economic needs," she said.

In the next 15 days, EPA will be further evaluating the preliminary list of projects slated for further review and transmit a final list to the Corps. After that, issues of concern regarding particular permit applications will be addressed during a 60-day review process triggered when the Corps informs EPA that a particular permit is ready for discussion.

"This administration made a commitment to be more collaborative, transparent, and efficient in how it executes its responsibilities. The enhanced coordination procedures in the MOU provide a path forward and certainty regarding how the projects will move through the process," said Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works. "I am confident that this collaborative effort will strengthen our environmental reviews while allowing sustainable economic development to proceed."

The enhanced coordination process, announced in June, was created to strengthen the environmental review of pending mining applications and to address the backlog of permit decisions that occurred as a result of various challenges, including litigation.

This process is one element of the Obama administration's commitment to improve the environmental review of permits for surface coal mining projects in Appalachia and look for ways to reduce adverse environmental impacts.

Willa Mays, executive director for Appalachian Voices, a regional environmental group, was delighted. "By recommending these permits not be approved, the EPA and the Army Corps has demonstrated their intention to fulfill a promise to provide science-based oversight which will limit the devastating environmental impacts of mountaintop removal mining."

The reaction from coalfield residents was cautiously optimistic. Chuck Nelson, retired union coal miner from Glen Daniel, West Virginia who serves on the Board of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition said, "By recommending these permits be further reviewed, the EPA is allowing at least a temporary reprieve for the people of Appalachia. It appears the EPA is starting to take the concerns of coalfield residents into account when considering these permits."

This year there have been many protests and demonstrations against the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining, which involves blasting with explosives to remove up to 1,000 vertical feet of mountain to expose underlying coal seams. Excess rock and soil are dumped into the valleys below, covering streams.

To date, mountaintop removal mining has destroyed approximately 500 mountains, more than one million acres of hardwood forest, and more than 1,200 miles of Appalachian streams.

Vernon Haltom, co-director of Coal River Mountain Watch in Raleigh County, West Virginia, where many of the protests have taken place, was excited about the announcement. "We who live with the nightmare of mountaintop removal are glad that the EPA is beginning to do its job to protect our communities," he said. "Our life-giving water resources are priceless, and it's refreshing to see the EPA finally prioritizing them over coal companies' short-term profits."

The nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity issued a statement of support today for the EPA's decision. "Daily in Appalachia, nearly four million pounds of explosives are used to blast one of the oldest mountain ranges on earth, endangering the lives and property of residents and destroying streams and forests that provide habitat for an incredible diversity of fish and wildlife," said Tierra Curry, conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity.

"Holding back these permits is a good step toward ending this destruction, but the Obama administration needs to ban mountaintop-removal coal mining and fund the development of an alternative green economy in Appalachia," Curry said.

In March, the EPA issued a statement saying the agency would "use the best science and follow the letter of the law" in reviewing mountaintop removal permits, but Curry points out that in May the EPA approved 42 new permits, more than were approved during the entire Bush administration,

The list of 79 permits under review is being made available today on EPA's website along with additional information about the nature and outcome of the EPA review process. The list will be available for public review for the next two weeks and then a final list will be published and provided to the Corps of Engineers to begin the next phase of review.

Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.