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EPA mountaintop removal decision update

I will post the correction “It’s Getting Hot In Here” published:

It saddens me to post a correction here — the AP stories and hundreds of news stories were overstating the victory against mountaintop removal yesterday. And they still are this morning, actually. What really happened is the EPA took action to put on hold two valley fill permits and indicated that hundreds of other pending applications would come under much more strict review.That’s right, “review” not “moratorium.” The confusion is so big the EPA put out this grumpy little press release — here’s a depressing clip for you:

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.

You can still call the White House and leave a message thanking President Obama for taking this important first step and then ask for a real moratorium on these permits. 202–456–1111

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Even worse, Greenwire reports today:

The Army Corps of Engineers reinstated a permit yesterday for a controversial Kentucky coal mining project hours after U.S. EPA had announced a planned review of similar projects’ effects on water quality.

The move angered environmentalists, who saw EPA’s announcement as a step toward further restrictions on mountaintop removal mining.

“It flies in the face of the EPA announcement that new permits are going to get a careful environmental review,” said Joan Mulhern, legislative counsel for Earthjustice. “It appears the Army Corps is acting as a rogue agency.”

Army Corps spokesman Doug Garman said EPA merely expressed concern about two specific projects in its announcement. Neither of those — Central Appalachia Mining’s Big Branch project in Pike County, Ky., and Highland Mining Co.’s Reylas mine in Logan County, W.Va. — has received a permit.

EPA declined to comment on the corps’ reinstatement of the Leslie County, Ky., permit. Agency spokeswoman Enesta Jones said EPA would take a close look at mountaintop removal permits. She said the agency anticipates that most of the pending permit applications will not raise environmental concerns.

The permit for the International Coal Group’s Thunder Ridge mine in Leslie County was suspended in 2007 when the corps asked the company for additional information on ways to minimize debris going into streams and overall environmental impacts of the mine.

After the company provided that information last December and eliminated a valley fill and sediment pond, the corps concluded that mine discharges would not significantly damage water bodies.

Company spokesman Ira Gamm said the company has conducted a watershed-scale impact assessment and developed a procedure for minimizing debris going into streams.

Mountaintop mining involves blowing off summit ridges to expose coal seams and dumping debris into valleys, a practice EPA says is likely to pollute water and severely damage or destroy streams (E&ENews PM, March 24).

Mulhern called on EPA to prevent the Army Corps from issuing permits that could potentially harm water quality in mining areas. “The EPA has the ultimate authority under the Clean Water Act to determine what activities are permitted, and it’s up to EPA now to exercise that authority and ensure that the Army Corps is adhering to Obama administration policies,” she said.

EPA’s announced review has sparked controversy, with industry stakeholders saying it could delay permits.

Many permits already were stalled as the Army Corps waited for a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision on whether more extensive environmental review is required for mountaintop mining projects.

The Richmond, Va., court determined that the corps can issue permits for mountaintop mining without the more stringent review, overturning a lower court’s ruling that found the corps was not performing adequate environmental analyses before permitting mountaintop operations (E&ENews PM, Feb. 13).

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D) said this week that he was concerned about EPA’s review, as well, asking the agency to clarify its announcement.

“For some time, there has been a lengthy backlog of … permits awaiting action from the Army Corps of Engineers as a result of litigation and bureaucratic red tape,” Beshear said in a statement. “Those permits should be reviewed in a timely manner, regardless of the outcome of any one application for mining.”

An earlier letter from Appalachian voices, a North Carolina based grassroots organization, stated:

Community and environmental groups across Appalachia strongly applauded the EPA’s Tuesday decision to delay and review permits for two mountaintop removal coal mining operations. The EPA’s action calls into question over 100 pending valley fill permits that threaten to bury hundreds more miles of headwater streams.Mountaintop removal coal mining is an extreme form of surface mining where explosives are used to blast up to 1000 feet of mountaintop in order to reach thin seams of coal. The remaining rubble, or overburden, which contains toxic heavy metal particles, is dumped into adjacent valleys burying headwater streams. Over 1200 miles of streams and 500 mountains have been destroyed due to mountaintop removal.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama expressed concern over mountaintop removal, stating “we have to find more environmentally sound ways of mining coal than simply blowing the tops off mountains.”

“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., Chairman 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.”

Mountaintop removal coal mining, a heavily mechanized process, employs far fewer workers than underground mining. Coal mining once provided over 120,000 jobs in West Virginia alone, but that number has dropped to less than 20,000. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, counties with a high concentration of mountaintop removal mines are some of the most impoverished counties in the United States.

Groups in the region view the recent EPA decision as an acknowledgement of the destruction mountaintop removal coal mining inflicts on the environment and communities of central Appalachia. They hope that, with the halt of new mountaintop removal mining permits, there will be room for green industry and that the president’s green jobs stimulus and renewable energy development plans will reach the Appalachian coalfields.

“Not only does mountaintop removal coal mining destroy mountains, it also destroys the economic potential of Appalachia,” said Dr. Matthew Wasson, Director of Programs for the environmental non-profit organization Appalachian Voices. “This decision rekindles hope for a new economy in Appalachia built around green jobs and renewable energy,” Wasson said.

Carl Shoupe, a retired coal miner and member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, echoed Wasson’s sentiment that this decision is a step in the right direction. “We finally have an administration in place that uses scientific reasoning to make decisions instead of ideology,” Shoupe said. “We fought for this for years. I hope the EPA comes through and permanently stops the permits in our community.”