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Expedited MTR permits put on hold

Melissa Waage

Posted June 18, 2010

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In another signal that the Obama administration is getting  serious about  mountaintop removal, the Army Corps of Engineers has decided to suspend a particular type of “fast track“ permit allowing coal companies to dump mining waste in Appalachian waterways.  This is a short-term but laudable decision that may help slow the MTR destruction in the region as Appalachians and their advocates push for more decisive reform.   Specifically, the Corps announced yesterday that it would suspend Nationwide Permit 21 in the Appalachian Region for the time being. Under the Nationwide Permit, issued every five years, activities that affect waterways can receive permits as a category, rather than going through a full permitting process one at a time for each specific operation.  (Section 21 is the one dealing with coal mining valley fills, hence “Nationwide Permit 21.”)  As Kentuckians for the Commonwealth helpfully explains,

under current practice, if a coal company wants to create a valley fill it can apply to do so under the NWP 21. In order to qualify, the company is supposed to demonstrate that its plans would have “minimal” individual or cumulative impact on water quality. The Corps of Engineers has routinely accepted those claims and granted NWP 21 permits. These types of permits were cheaper and faster for the coal companies, and did not allow for meaningful evaluation of the individual or cumulative impacts of valley fills on water quality, public health and the environment. 

The decision today suspends such permits in Appalachia until the Corps makes a decision about whether to end the NWP for coal valley fills altogether.  This is something NRDC and our allies have pushed for in comments submitted to the Corps last year.

Yesterday’s announcement in itself doesn’t stop permitting of MTR and valley fill operations, but it does eliminate the NWP shortcut in Appalachia for the time being.  This means companies will have to apply for individual permits and undergo a full environmental review and public comment process for each proposed project.

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