Coal Tattoo

Update: Obama EPA to scrutinize dozens of MTR permits


Photo by Vivian Stockman

OK, the basic information from today’s EPA announcement on mountaintop removal is included in this post from earlier — along with links to the “initial list” of permits and other data from EPA.  That post — the first media report to break the news of EPA’s announcement — also contains several updates with reactions from the coal industry and environmental groups. Make sure to check it out. Here’s the link again.

Now, I’m going to try to break this down a bit.

Essentially, the Obama EPA has ordered more detailed reviews of 79 coal-mining permits that the federal Army Corps of Engineers had been poised to approve for mine operators in the Appalachian coalfields.

Basically, the agency is objecting to the issuance — at least in their current form — for all of the permits that remain on the list of applications pending at Corps offices in the Appalachian region. As explained in this EPA Q and A document,  31 permits were removed from the original list of 108 Clean Water Act permit applications for various reasons. Some were withdrawn by the mining company, others were for underground mines EPA was not concerned with, and — interestingly — several are the subject of “ongoing enforcement action” that EPA says precludes a permit decision. Two other permits were also added to the list, producing the 79-permit list posted here.

Why does EPA want to more closely examine these mining proposals?

EPA is indicating that is has concerns about whether these proposals comply with the Clean Water Act, more specifically with what are called the 404(b)(1) Guidelines,  a set of rules that require applications for “dredge-and-fill” permits to first avoid impacts to water resources, minimize any unavoidable impacts and then evaluate the need to compensate for any remaining impacts.

Here’s what EPA said in that same Q and A document:

— The majority of the proposals recommended for further evaluation may not have adequately demonstrated avoidance and minimization of impacts in accordance with the Clean Water Act guidelines.

— Over 80 percent of the proposals recommended for further evaluation exhibited the potential for excursions from state narrative water quality standards.

Over 50 percent of the proposals recommended for further evaluation raise concerns regarding the potential for significant degradation of the aquatic ecosystem, either individually or cumulatively.

The scientific literature, EPA field experience, and available project information suggest that the mitigation proposed may not be adequate to offset proposed impacts.

Updated: If you want to try to understand how EPA got to these figures and conclusions, check out this file containing more detailed information on each of the permits in question. As EPA explains here,   the agency examined each mining proposal using something called the Multi-criteria Integrated Resource Assessment, or MIRA. This file from EPA’s Web site defines some of the terms and the codes for each of the columns on the permit spreadsheet. And here is a list of the potential environmental problems at each mine identified by this process.

What happens now?

The Obama administration’s multi-agency agreement on handling mountaintop removal gives  EPA regional offices to tell EPA headquarters which of the permits on this list from their regions “raise concerns” and which, if any, may proceed without further action by EPA. Then, EPA HQ is supposed to submit a consolidated list to the Corps HQ. After that, the two agencies have 60 days to conducted “enhanced” and coordinated permit reviews. That 60-day clock is triggered whenever the Corps informs EPA that a particular permit on the consolidated list is ready for this “enhanced” review.

In their press release, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson and Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works (head of the Corps) Jo-Ellen Darcy were careful to not say that the administration is out to stop all mountaintop removal.

lisaonbrown.jpgHere’s what Jackson said:

The administration pledged earlier this year to improve review of mining projects that risked harming water quality. Release of the preliminary list is the final 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.

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.

darcy.jpgAnd here’s what Darcy said:

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. I am confident that this collaborative effort will strengthen our environmental reviews while allowing sustainable economic development to proceed.