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EPA Puts Brakes on Mountaintop Removal

Rob Perks

Posted September 11, 2009 in Saving Wildlife and Wild Places, Solving Global Warming

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Today marks a good day in the struggle to stop mountaintop removal coal mining.  Citing concerns about severe water quality impacts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) blocked all 79 pending mountaintop mining permits until the agency completes a more in-depth environmental review of the proposed projects.  The freeze on these permit applications will force an even harder look at them over the next 14 days, in consultation with EPA regional offices.

This news is definitely worth cheering, but obviously this is no time for us to declare victory.  While our hope was that EPA's preliminary review would have resulted in an immediate halt to all future mountaintop removal, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson's action today offers a welcome reprieve for Appalachia.  We're also relieved that we didn't see a repeat of EPA's heartbreaking decision a few months ago to greenlight 42 of 48 other pending permits.

NRDC's position is clear: The EPA should not permit mining operations based on regulatory loopholes and lax enforcement practices that have allowed mountain waterways to be treated as waste dumps.  The people in Appalachia, like all Americans, have a right to clean streams, rivers, and drinking water -- and it's up to the EPA to look out for their interests.  Today the agency fulfilled that duty, and now we expect the EPA to follow-up with the necessary actions to end -- not to mend -- the practice of mountain removal.

Below is EPA's press release and here is the complete list of the controversial permits now under greater scrutiny: 

EPA Releases Preliminary Results for Surface Coal Mining Permit Reviews

WASHINGTON -The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced today that it has identified 79 proposed surface coal-mining projects in Appalachian states for further, detailed reviews of their pending permits. The extended reviews will be carried out under an enhanced coordination process between EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers developed under an interagency Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on surface coal mining facilitated by the Council on Environmental Quality and signed by the EPA, the Corps, and the Department of Interior. The Corps and EPA will work together during this review process to ensure compliance with the Clean Water Act and the protection of this nation's public health and environment.

"The administration pledged earlier this year to improve review of mining projects that risked harming water quality. Release of this preliminary list is the first step in a process to assure that the environmental concerns raised by the 79 permit applications are addressed and that permits issued are protective of water quality and affected ecosystems," said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. "We look forward to working closely with the Army Corps of Engineers, with the involvement of the mining companies, to achieve a resolution of EPA's concerns that avoids harmful environmental impacts and meets our energy and economic needs."

In the next 15 days, EPA will be further evaluating the preliminary list of projects slated for further review and transmit a final list to the Corps. After that, issues of concern regarding particular permit applications will be addressed during a 60-day review process triggered when the Corps informs EPA that a particular permit is ready for discussion.

"This administration made a commitment to be more collaborative, transparent, and efficient in how it executes its responsibilities. The enhanced coordination procedures in the MOU provide a path forward and certainty regarding how the projects will move through the process," said Jo-Ellen Darcy, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works. "I am confident that this collaborative effort will strengthen our environmental reviews while allowing sustainable economic development to proceed."

The enhanced coordination process, announced in June 2009, was created to strengthen the environmental review of pending mining applications and to address the backlog of permit decisions that occurred as a result of various challenges, including litigation. This process is one element of the Obama Administration's commitment to improve the environmental review of permits for surface coal mining projects in Appalachia and look for ways to reduce adverse environmental impacts. The process will also allow for greater public participation and transparency. Since June, 29 projects have been removed from the list for various reasons, including circumstances where permit applicants have requested that their applications be withdrawn.

The 79 pending permit applications on which EPA focused are for proposed surface coal mining operations in 4 Appalachian states. EPA's initial review concluded that all of the projects would likely cause water quality impacts requiring additional review under the Clean Water Act. The initial reviews were conducted in light of available project-specific information, the existing environmental condition of the watershed in which the project is proposed to be located, and the nature of environmental impacts predicted to result from construction and operation of the proposed mine.

The list of 79 permits is being made available today on EPA's Web site at the address below along with additional information about the nature and outcome of the EPA review process. As noted, the list will be available for public review for the next two weeks and then a final list will be published and provided to the Corps of Engineers to begin the next phase of review.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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