The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is objecting to three more Appalachian surface mining permits, saying the operations would cause unacceptable damage.
The agency recently asked the Army Corps of Engineers to revoke a permit for a Virginia mine that was issued under a streamlined process and require the operator to obtain an individual permit, which would include stricter environmental standards. The EPA also wants more environmental safeguards before the corps issues permits for two West Virginia surface mines, including one owned by Richmond, Va.-based Massey Energy Co., the nation's fourth-largest coal company.
In letters released Thursday, the EPA told the corps that the projects likely violate the Clean Water Act.
Under President Barack Obama, the EPA has begun subjecting surface coal mining permits to tougher scrutiny than the Bush Administration did -- particularly operations that blast away mountaintops. Administrator Lisa Jackson last month directed EPA staff to review 150 to 200 pending applications for new or expanded surface coal mines. The agency has since objected to several permits.
The EPA's renewed interest has buoyed environmentalists and other opponents of so-called mountaintop removal mining. The highly efficient and destructive practice involves blasting away ridgelines to expose multiple coal seams and dumping debris atop stream beds in valleys.
National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich said the latest letters underscore fears of a de facto moratorium on surface mine permits from Virginia to Illinois. The Washington, D.C.-based trade group estimates coal mines in the region employ 77,000 people.
"The reason this permit review is potentially so disruptive over such a widespread area is that -- as the EPA well knows -- existing operations need new permits to dispose of fill as they exhaust the use of areas available to them now under existing permits," Popovich said in an e-mail. "It's coming in late in the process to recommend against these permits, so a comprehensive delay seems likely."
That's good news, said Janet Keating, executive director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. The group recently persuaded a federal judge to bar mine operators from using southern West Virginia valley fills authorized by the corps under the same nationwide permit used to authorize the Virginia mine targeted by the EPA.
"It makes sense to me, in light of the recent ruling," Keating said. "We're extremely pleased."
Ginger Mullins, regulatory branch chief for the corps' Huntington District, which covers portions of Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina, said it's good that EPA is commenting on the two West Virginia permits before they're issued. "We are reviewing their letters," she said.
The corps Norfolk District, meanwhile, is evaluating the EPA's request to revoke the Virginia permit, spokesman Mark Haviland said. "A decision has not been made yet by our district commander."