EPA to Review Coal Mining Impacts on Water

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported on March 24 that it has sent two letters to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expressing serious concerns about the need to reduce the potential harmful impacts on water quality caused by certain types of coal mining practices, such as mountaintop mining.

The letters specifically addressed two new surface coal mining operations in West Virginia and Kentucky. EPA also intends to review other requests for mining permits.

"The two letters reflect EPA's considerable concern regarding the environmental impact these projects would have on fragile habitats and streams," said Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. "I have directed the agency to review other mining permit requests. EPA will use the best science and follow the letter of the law in ensuring we are protecting our environment."

EPA's letters, sent to the Corps office in Huntington, W.Va., stated that the coal mines would likely cause water quality problems in streams below the mines, cause significant degradation to streams buried by mining activities, and that proposed steps to offset these impacts are inadequate. EPA has recommended specific actions be taken to further avoid and reduce these harmful impacts and to improve mitigation.

The letters were sent to the Corps by EPA senior officials in the agency's Atlanta and Philadelphia offices. Permit applications for such projects are required by the Clean Water Act.

EPA also requested the opportunity to meet with the Corps and the mining companies seeking the new permits to discuss alternatives that would better protect streams, wetlands, and rivers.

The Corps is responsible for issuing Clean Water Act permits for proposed surface coal mining operations that impact streams, wetlands, and other waters. EPA is required by the act to review proposed permits and provides comments to the Corps where necessary to ensure that proposed permits fully protect water quality.

Because of active litigation in the 4th Circuit challenging the issuance of Corps permits for coal mining, the Corps has been issuing far fewer permits in West Virginia since the litigation began in 2007. As a result, there is a significant backlog of permits under review by the Corps. EPA expects to be actively involved in the review of these permits following issuance of the 4th Circuit decision last month.

EPA is coordinating its action with the White House Council on Environmental Quality and with other agencies including the Corps.

Clarification
Initial reports on this action prompted the agency to release the following statement:

"The Environmental Protection Agency is not halting, holding, or placing a moratorium on any of the mining permit applications. Plain and simple," said EPA press secretary Adora Andy. "EPA has issued comments on two pending permit applications to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expressing serious concerns about the need to reduce the potential harmful impacts on water quality. EPA will take a close look at other permits that have been held back because of the 4th Circuit litigation. We fully anticipate that the bulk of these pending permit applications will not raise environmental concerns. In cases where a permit does raise environmental concerns, we will work expeditiously with the Army Corps of Engineers to determine how these concerns can be addressed. EPA's submission of comments to the Corps on draft permits is a well-established procedure under the Clean Water Act to assure that environmental considerations are addressed in the permitting process."

Appalachian group sounds off
The news about the review was met with appreciation by community and environmental groups across Appalachia, according to a press release from Appalachian Voices.

"This decision illustrates a dramatic departure from the energy policies that are destroying the mountains, the culture, the rivers and forests of Appalachia, and our most deeply held American values," said Bobby Kennedy Jr., chair of the Waterkeeper Alliance. "By this decision, President Obama signals our embarking on a new energy future that promises wholesome, dignified, prosperous, and healthy communities that treasure our national resources," the release said.

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