EPA to Scrutinize Permits for Mountaintop-Removal Mining

A mountaintop-removal mining site at Kayford Mountain, W.Va., in 2008.
A mountaintop-removal mining site at Kayford Mountain, W.Va., in 2008. (By Jeff Gentner -- Associated Press)
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By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Environmental Protection Agency put hundreds of mountaintop mining operations on notice that they would be the focus of closer scrutiny yesterday, saying it needs to review their impact on local streams and wetlands before they can move forward.

The announcement, which outraged mining interests and cheered environmentalists, challenged a Bush administration policy and blocked the effect of a federal court decision that had made it easier for mine operators to dispose of the rubble and sludge created when companies blow off the tops of mountains to get to the coal buried underneath.

Late last night, the EPA issued an unusual statement saying that the agency "is not halting, holding or placing a moratorium on any of the mining permit applications." But the statement indicated that the EPA would "take a close look" at applications that had been the focus of recent litigation.

EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson also sent letters to the Army Corps of Engineers objecting to proposed operations in West Virginia and Kentucky, saying the two projects pose a serious threat to "aquatic resources of national importance" and should be halted.

"The two letters reflect EPA's considerable concern regarding the environmental impact these projects would have on fragile habitats and streams," Jackson said in a statement. "I have directed the agency to review other mining permit requests. EPA will use the best science and follow the letter of the law in ensuring we are protecting our environment."

Companies had been hoping to get Corps of Engineers permits for dozens of new and ongoing mountaintop mining operations after a three-judge appeals panel in Richmond ruled last month that the Corps did not have to conduct extensive reviews before issuing the permits. Just before leaving office, the Bush administration finalized rules that eased a 25-year-old prohibition on dumping mine waste within 100 feet of any intermittent or permanent stream, allowing such dumping if it was unavoidable and as long as harm was minimized "to the extent practicable" and was compensated for somewhere else.

Corps spokesman Doug Garman said the agency "will be working with EPA to address any concerns they have related to mountaintop mining permits."

National Mining Association spokeswoman Carol Raulston said some mining companies had been waiting "months, years in some cases" to move ahead and now face the prospect of further delay.

"These are lawful permits," Raulston said. "They meet the requirements of the law and have been affirmed by the courts."

Mining companies and environmental groups have fought over how to interpret the Clean Water Act, which prohibits dumping of mining waste that damages water quality. Courts have issued conflicting opinions, and federal officials estimate that since the mid-1980s 1,600 miles of streams in Appalachia have been wiped out by such "valley fills."

Chuck Nelson, who worked as a coal miner in West Virginia for three decades and is now a community organizer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, said the EPA's decision came "just in time." Mountaintop mining requires fewer workers than traditional mining, he said, and its environmental degradation leaves communities with few economic options.

"We're losing our way of life and our culture," Nelson said. "We're paying the price for mountaintop removal. It's big profits for the industry."

But William B. Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, questioned why the new administration would potentially put hundreds of jobs on hold when other land-clearing activities in Appalachia also affect the environment.

"It's absolutely puzzling to me why you would want to dismantle a state's economy," Raney said. "Does this mean in the steep terrain of eastern America, we're not going to have roads, we're not going to have economic development, we're not going to have Wal-Marts?"

The EPA's action was the latest step reviewing environmental decisions made under President George W. Bush. On Monday, the Fish and Wildlife Service filed a document in U.S. District Court saying it will reconsider a 2006 decision not to protect the Gunnison sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. Conservationists have sought to win federal protection for it, and the Interior Department's inspector general concluded in December that Bush's appointees ignored federal biologists' advice in not adding the bird and other species to the protected list.

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