Coal Tattoo

Mountaintop removal moratorium — NOT!

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The National Mining Association blasted EPA for “halting mining permits.” West Virginia Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito warned the Obama administration about not to “block mining permits.”  Coalfield environmentalists praised the federal government’s decision “to deny permits.”

OK. OK. Calm down everybody.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson (above, with President Obama) hasn’t denied any permits, and the agency certainly hasn’t issued a moratorium on new mountaintop removal permits — or on any kind of mining permits, for that matter.  Industry-friendly changes the Bush administration made to the Clean Water Act fill rule and the Surface Mining Act buffer zone rule are still in effect.

But, according to EPA, there’s bit quite a bit of confusion about what the agency has done.  That’s been driven in part by the widely-disseminated story from The Associated Press — but fueled far more by wild speculation in the early press releases and commentaries from both sides.

I was puzzled by some of the comments and reactions, given that EPA’s original press release indicated that EPA had raised specific objections to only two mining permits, adding that Jackson had instructed her staff to closely review other pending permit applications. So, I asked Jackson’s press secretary, Adora Andy,  if EPA had issued some sort of permit moratorium. Her response, included in the most recently updated story on the Gazette Web site, was this:

“No block, halt or hold. A review of those pending permit applications.”

Later, EPA issued a follow-up statement:

The Environmental Protection Agency is not halting, holding or placing a moratorium on any of the mining permit applications. Plain and simple. 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.

So far, it seems like West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin is the only one not completely losing his cool. Well, he did quickly schedule a meeting with White House officials to discuss the situation. But it turns out Manchin was going to be in Washington anyway, and simply added a meeting with Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Nancy Sutley to an already packed schedule. The vision of Manchin riding in to save coal jobs loses some of its effect when you know he was already going to be in town.

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But given the rhetoric flying from both sides over the last six hours or so, the statement Manchin issued this evening sounded almost statesman-like, and it might turn out he’s the only one who got it right:

I look forward to meeting with [Sutley] and sharing our concerns and finding out the intent of this ruling. I believe the interpretation of the letters may be different than the intent, and I am confident that reasonable people can come together to find a solution where there might be differences.

Kudos also to Rob Perks at the Natural Resources Defense Council‘s Switchboard blog, who is one of the only folks in the advocacy world to pick up on the second EPA statement.