MINING:

Army Corps reinstates controversial mountaintop permit

The Army Corps of Engineers reinstated a permit yesterday for a controversial Kentucky coal mining project hours after U.S. EPA had announced a planned review of similar projects' effects on water quality.

The move angered environmentalists, who saw EPA's announcement as a step toward further restrictions on mountaintop removal mining.

"It flies in the face of the EPA announcement that new permits are going to get a careful environmental review," said Joan Mulhern, legislative counsel for Earthjustice. "It appears the Army Corps is acting as a rogue agency."

Army Corps spokesman Doug Garman said EPA merely expressed concern about two specific projects in its announcement. Neither of those -- Central Appalachia Mining's Big Branch project in Pike County, Ky., and Highland Mining Co.'s Reylas mine in Logan County, W.Va. -- has received a permit.

EPA declined to comment on the corps' reinstatement of the Leslie County, Ky., permit. Agency spokeswoman Enesta Jones said EPA would take a close look at mountaintop removal permits. She said the agency anticipates that most of the pending permit applications will not raise environmental concerns.

The permit for the International Coal Group's Thunder Ridge mine in Leslie County was suspended in 2007 when the corps asked the company for additional information on ways to minimize debris going into streams and overall environmental impacts of the mine.

After the company provided that information last December and eliminated a valley fill and sediment pond, the corps concluded that mine discharges would not significantly damage water bodies.

Company spokesman Ira Gamm said the company has conducted a watershed-scale impact assessment and developed a procedure for minimizing debris going into streams.

Mountaintop mining involves blowing off summit ridges to expose coal seams and dumping debris into valleys, a practice EPA says is likely to pollute water and severely damage or destroy streams (E&ENews PM, March 24).

Mulhern called on EPA to prevent the Army Corps from issuing permits that could potentially harm water quality in mining areas. "The EPA has the ultimate authority under the Clean Water Act to determine what activities are permitted, and it's up to EPA now to exercise that authority and ensure that the Army Corps is adhering to Obama administration policies," she said.

EPA's announced review has sparked controversy, with industry stakeholders saying it could delay permits.

Many permits already were stalled as the Army Corps waited for a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision on whether more extensive environmental review is required for mountaintop mining projects.

The Richmond, Va., court determined that the corps can issue permits for mountaintop mining without the more stringent review, overturning a lower court's ruling that found the corps was not performing adequate environmental analyses before permitting mountaintop operations (E&ENews PM, Feb. 13).

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D) said this week that he was concerned about EPA's review, as well, asking the agency to clarify its announcement.

"For some time, there has been a lengthy backlog of ... permits awaiting action from the Army Corps of Engineers as a result of litigation and bureaucratic red tape," Beshear said in a statement. "Those permits should be reviewed in a timely manner, regardless of the outcome of any one application for mining."

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