Critics on both sides of the heated debate over the regulation of mountaintop-removal coal mining lambasted U.S. EPA today for its handling of the issue.
Environmentalists this morning strung a banner saying, "EPA: pledge to end mountaintop removal in 2010," between 20-foot-tall purple tripods outside the agency's Washington headquarters. Six protesters then chained themselves to the tripods' bases and vowed not to leave until EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson agrees to fly over Appalachia to survey environmental damage done by mountaintop mining.
Kate Rooth of the Rainforest Action Network, which organized the protest, said EPA must exercise its full authority under the Clean Water Act to prevent mining companies from blowing apart mountaintops and dumping waste into waterways.
In the Senate, Environment and Public Works Committee Republicans are preparing a report that they say shows EPA is using scrutiny of mountaintop mining to sabotage all coal mining in the eastern United States.
At issue are Clean Water Act permits for mining that are being reviewed by EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers for their effects on Appalachian waters. The corps issues such permits, but EPA has final oversight authority and veto power.
Republicans and coal-state Democrats cried foul last fall when EPA asked the corps to delay issuing 79 permits for additional reviews for Clean Water Act compliance. A set of permits submitted last spring are also awaiting federal approval. EPA is preparing new guidelines for permit applicants but announced two weeks ago that they would be delayed.
Republicans on the EPW Committee say permitting delays threaten the loss of more than 17,000 jobs, imperil 81 small businesses and prevent the production of more than 2 billion tons of coal.
Citing interviews with permit applicants, the Republicans say about 1 in 10 delayed mining permits are for mountaintop projects. Most of the rest are for surface mines, but at least 20 are for underground mines or coal processing facilities, a Republican staffer on the EPW Committee said.
"Although they're doing this in the name of mountaintop-removal mining, they're actually going after all coal mining, including underground permits," the staffer said. "If these permits are so bad for the environment, they should veto them, instead of just holding onto them indefinitely."
Adora Andy, spokeswoman for EPA, said both today's protest and the Senate report are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of EPA's role. The agency, she said, does not determine how much mining goes on in Appalachia, it is responsible for ensuring that projects comply with the Clean Water Act.
"First and most important, EPA has no problem with coal, nor do we regulate mining," Andy said. "EPA does have a big problem with coal pollution in our waters, and we intend to do our job under the law by protecting the water Americans drink, swim in and fish from."
Instead of "holding up" permits, Andy said, EPA is working with coal companies and the Army Corps to reduce the amount of waste dumped or the number of valleys filled.
The agencies are also hitting their deadlines in doing so, EPA said.
According to EPA: Of the 79 permits being held for advanced review, all but six are in the hands of the Army Corps. Of the six passed to EPA, three were approved within 60 days and the rest are still being scrutinized. Of 48 permit applications the Army Corps submitted for EPA review early in 2009, 42 were approved within 30 days.
The Army Corps did not respond to a call requesting comment.
But Senate Republicans maintain EPA is responsible for permitting delays. "The corps is a straightforward agency -- you put in A, you get B," the Republican staffer said. "They were ready to issue most of these permits. The EPA is more political. They're the ones with the agenda."