The federal Environmental Protection Agency released a list of 79 permits which it says poses environmental problems and won’t comply with the Clean Water Act.
The 79 permits on the list are scattered throughout Appalachia, and 23 are in West Virginia.
The announcement is part of an EPA campaign to subject mountaintop removal permits to greater scrutiny.
These tentative steps towards cracking down on surface mines have made environmentalists cautiously optimistic, and the coal industry increasingly nervous.
One of the EPA’s primary concerns is valley fills, where waste rock is dumped from mountaintop removal mines. That’s because selenium and other heavy metals have been found at high levels running off the mines.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issues the permits which allow coal companies to fill streams and valleys.
After fighting mountaintop removal for more than a decade, Joe Lovett of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and Environment says Friday’s announcement signifies a real shift.
“We hope this is the beginning of the end of mountaintop removal and valley fills,” he said.
“I don’t think modifications will work. I think the permits are so destructive that even with modifications they won’t comply with the Clean Water Act.”
But for an already-beleaguered coal industry worried about climate change legislation, this is further proof that the Obama Administration will take steps to curtail mountaintop removal.
Roger Horton, a surface miner and founder of Citizens for Coal, says curtailing mountaintop removal in America will force the U.S. to import coal from other countries.
“They’re going to look elsewhere. Coal is going to be a big part of the energy mix in this country for some time to come,” Horton said.
“And if they don’t mine it locally, they’re sure as heck going to import it from some other source, perhaps an unfriendly source to our country,” he said.
Next, the EPA will meet with the Army Corps to discuss each permit. Lovett says they will look at possible water quality problems, whether the mitigation is actually making up for the impacts of the mining, and the cumulative impacts this mining is having on watersheds.
Some of the EPA’s concerns may be resolved by discussions with the Army Corps of Engineers, which has the final say over permits. Some permits might require changes in order to be approved, and others may not be approved at all.
Coal industry officials say the new review process isn’t transparent, and it’s hard for mining companies to submit permits when they aren’t sure by what criteria they’ll be judged.
Bill Raney is the president of the West Virginia Coal Association. He’s calling for compromise.
“Let’s sit down and work out whatever those concerns are. The answer is not to stop it, so that you punish people in that process,” Raney said.
“And if there are concerns, let’s address them in a very timely way, and let’s address them in a way that allows the companies and people to continue to work to meet the market demands of today,” he said.
This is the third announcement about stricter mountaintop removal regulations since Obama’s taken office, and comes after a decade of court decisions regarding mountaintop removal.
So far, little has changed. But Lovett says it may be different this time.
“One thing that encourages me is, not only does the EPA have new leadership, but the Corps does as well,” Lovett said.
“So I expect that the Corps will be looking at these permits differntly in the future from the way they looked at them in the past,” he said.
Horton says that coal supporters plan to be vocal in their opposition to the EPA’s policies.
“Without giving away my tactics at this point in time, there are going to be direct actions, that are lawful, to let the administration know we aren’t going to be taking this lying down,” Horton said.
Friday’s announcement regards permits which had not yet been approved by the Corps. But it comes after news that the EPA is also opposing a 2,300 acre mountaintop removal permit in Logan County the Corps already approved.