U.S. EPA put a hold today on permitting for mountaintop mining so it can assess the impacts of those projects on water quality and aquatic life.
Exerting its authority under the Clean Water Act, EPA notified the lead federal permitting agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, yesterday that it planned to review permitting for two coal mining operations in West Virginia and Kentucky.
In a statement, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said her agency "will use the best science and follow the letter of the law in ensuring we are protecting our environment."
EPA plans to assess the Central Appalachia Mining's Big Branch project in Pike County, Ky., and the Highland Mining Company's Reylas mine in Logan County, W.Va.
Mountaintop mining involves the removal of summit ridges to expose coal seams and the dumping of debris into valleys, a practice EPA says is likely to pollute water and severely damage or destroy streams.
EPA said it found the companies' plans for mitigating environmental damage in the two projects inadequate. The agency said it would meet with representatives of the Army Corps and the mining companies to discuss additional protective measures.
The review begins in the wake of a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision, saying the corps can issue permits for mountaintop mining without requiring more extensive environmental reviews. The decision overturned a lower court's ruling that found the corps was not performing adequate environmental analyses before permitting mountaintop operations (E&ENews PM, Feb. 13).
After the corps issues a permit, the Clean Water Act requires EPA to review it and comment on it to ensure the permit protects water quality. The corps slowed its permitting while the litigation was under way and now must tackle as many as 250 permit proposals.
EPA's move might further delay those proposals.
Ed Hopkins, the environmental quality program director for the Sierra Club, hailed EPA's intervention as a sign of a new day at the agency. "This is an extremely significant action to put a stop to the devastating practice of mountaintop removal," he said. "This isn't just one permit that the EPA is looking at; this is an entire industry practice."
But Carol Raulston, spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, said the move jeopardizes thousands of jobs.
"EPA has delayed any further permitting for coal mining operations out of the Huntington and Louisville corps of engineers offices," she said. "This is very troubling, as there are as many as 65,000 mining jobs that are put at risk by this action because almost all mining operations in that area require a 404 permit in order to operate."
Raulston said delaying the permits would affect existing mining operations and said she hoped EPA's review would be expedited. The association is weighing what steps to take next, she added.
The corps could not be reached for comment.
Click here to read the letter from EPA's Region 4 Office in Atlanta.
Click here to read the letter from EPA's Region 3 Office in Philadelphia.