Coal Tattoo

As MTR protests resume, Obama OKs big new permit


Gazette photo by Rusty Marks

My coworker Rusty Marks has the story on the Gazette Web site about four anti-mountaintop removal protesters being arrested after they chained themselves to the door of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s Kanawha City offices this morning.

The protest comes just a day after the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment filed a petition seeking a federal takeover of WVDEP’s mining program. Environmentalists were already  seeking a federal takeover of the state’s water pollution control program.

But there was some other news brewing today, as word leaked out that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had dropped its objections to one of the six major mountaintop removal mining permits it was blocking. With EPA out of the way, the federal Army Corps of Engineers approved the permit late last week. Corps officials never announced the move publicly and word of the action came out only after government sources told environmental groups about it privately.

Ed Hopkins, director of the Sierra Club’s environmental quality program, blasted the permit issuance:

We are disappointed that the administration has approved a new mountaintop removal mine without making any commitment to adopt new regulations or policies that would end this destructive practice. While we appreciate that the Obama administration is taking a harder look at mountaintop removal coal mining, unless that results in decisions that end the irreversible destruction of streams, the harder look isn’t going to do the job.

The permit issued was for CONSOL Energy’s Peg Fork Surface Mine, an 817-acre operation near Chattaroy in Mingo County. Peg Fork was one of six permits that remained under review by EPA after the agency cleared dozens of Corps permit issuance proposals earlier this year.

The original CONSOL permit proposal involved eight valley fills.  As is typical, the Corps has not yet made public the final permit documents. But Mark Taylor, a permit section chief at the Corps’ office in Huntington, told me the final version approves only two of the valley fills. The other six would be approved only after additional water quality sampling is reviewed by the Corps and EPA, Taylor said.

Enesta Jones, a spokeswoman for EPA, issued this statement in response to my inquiry about the Peg Fork permit:

Since March, EPA worked with the Corps of Engineers to revise the original permit and to reduce potential environmental and water quality impacts.  For example, the original permit would have approved 8 valley fills in waters of the United States.  The revised permit approves only two valley fills thus avoiding impacts to six streams. The revised permit also requires significant water quality and biological monitoring in streams below the mine that was not included in the original permit.  EPA and the Corps will have the opportunity to review the monitoring results before any additional mining in the area may proceed.  The permit also makes clear that EPA retains its authority to “veto” the permit under the Clean Water Act if the Agency identifies concerns as a result of the monitoring.

These are all significant improvements over the originally proposed permit and preserves EPA’s role in ensuring mining related impacts are avoided and water quality is protected.

The EPA statement also said:

EPA has not changed its position regarding the need to significantly improve the Clean Water Act review of surface coal mining practices in Appalachia in order to reduce environmental and water quality impacts associated with these practices.

It’s hard to know how much the EPA-pushed changes improved this permit — since neither the EPA nor the Corps are making a copy of it public yet (despite agency promises to make this permit review process transparent).

But it’s easy to understand frustrations from both citizen groups and the coal industry, given the lack of a coherent policy from the Obama administration on how it plans to regulate mountaintop removal in the future. Joe Lovett, executive director of the Appalachian Center, explained it this way:

Until the administration makes it clear that it opposes mountaintop removal mining generally, the environmental community is going to be disappointed anytime it issues a mountaintop removal permit. What the administration has to do is develop a policy and let everyone know what that policy is.