Mountaintop Mining to Get More Environmental Scrutiny, Obama Officials Say

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Obama administration will announce plans today to tighten scrutiny of mountaintop coal mining, in an effort to reduce environmental damage from operations that shear off peaks and fill Appalachian valleys, federal officials said.

The policy changes, outlined in a new agreement among federal agencies, will not end the practice, also called mountaintop removal. But administration officials said their aim is to curtail its worst impacts: wooded peaks reduced to barren stumps and healthy streams buried under tons of rock.

The agreement proposes to end a fast-track approval process for new mining permits in Appalachia, requiring that they undergo a more detailed environmental review. It would also reassert federal oversight over state-level regulators, allowing checks of their work for evidence of lax scrutiny, and would try to close loopholes that allow waste rock to be dumped near streams.

Mountaintop mining "is allowed under current federal law," said Nancy Sutley, who chairs the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "And until that changes, we have to use the tools that we have."

Sutley declined to say whether she will seek to have mountaintop mining banned. "We're still early in that discussion," she said, adding: "We don't make the laws."

The new policies are a result of months of discussions, led by Sutley's council, among federal agencies, environmentalists and coal-industry leaders.

Sutley said they were designed to provide certainty about the administration's views on mountaintop mining -- ending the confusion created when federal officials announced a massive review of pending mine permits in March.

But there's no guarantee of that.

As outlined yesterday, the administration's agreement is more like a promise than a policy, pledging better scrutiny of the mines but providing few specifics about how that would work in practice.

Sutley, for instance, said she could not estimate how much the new policies would reduce the scale of mountaintop mining.

"I think that we'll be taking . . . a more environmentally tough review and let the regulators draw [their] conclusions," she said.

She said regulators are likely to apply standards similar to those used in a recent review of 48 pending mountaintop-mine permit applications. The Environmental Protection Agency found no significant problems with 42 of the applications, but it rejected six as too damaging.

"There's a strong up-front recognition here that the impacts are real, that the impacts are serious and that we in the executive branch need to do a better job," said another administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly.

Mountaintop mining is practiced widely in areas including southern West Virginia and southwest Virginia, usually in spots where the mined coal seams are too thin or too close to the surface to reach by tunneling. Instead, the rock above the seams is blasted or bulldozed away.

In some cases, mining companies pile the rock back up and plant new trees and grasses on top. In others, the mountain is left shorter.

In nearly all mountaintop mining, though, excess rock is disposed of in "valley fills." At the EPA's last count, in 2001, 724 miles of stream valley had been buried -- in some cases, environmentalists say, decimating ecosystems.

Another administration official said some tighter scrutiny will be applied to about 108 pending applications for mining permits. Other provisions will apply to others that arrive starting today.

The official said the new agreement would also promise to bring "green jobs" and other new economic opportunities to the regions where mountaintop mining is most prevalent.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company