Coal Tattoo

EPA: All 79 mining permits need more review


Photo by Vivian Stockman

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency just issued the following statement regarding its ongoing review of mountaintop removal mining permits in Appalachia:

 EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Peter S. Silva today finalized the list of 79 Appalachian surface coal mining permits requiring additional review and coordination under the Clean Water Act. EPA’s letter today confirms that all 79 permits initially identified on September 11 must undergo additional evaluation by EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers. EPA’s final list was transmitted in a letter to the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works) Jo-Ellen Darcy.  The 79 permits represent all of the backlogged surface coal mining projects under review by the Army Corps of Engineers.  After a careful evaluation of these surface coal mining projects, EPA determined that each of them, as currently proposed, is likely to result in significant harm to water quality and the environment and are therefore not consistent with requirements of the CWA.  EPA and the Corps have developed a joint enhanced coordination process that establishes a schedule and procedures for the evaluation of these 79 permits. The Corps of Engineers is now responsible under the coordination process for beginning the next stage of discussions with EPA and the mining companies to reduce anticipated environmental and water quality impacts.  In his letter, Assistant Administrator Silva emphasized that “EPA looks 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.”

Updated:  Here’s a link to EPA’s letter to the Corps, outlining its concerns about these permits.

What does this mean?

Well, it doesn’t mean that EPA is denying or rejecting all of these permits … despite what Hoppy Kercheval reported earlier this morning for MetroNews, the statewide radio network here in West Virginia.

The process is a little more complicated than that. I tried to break it down previously, and you can read that post here.

But as the EPA statement said, EPA officials have determined that all 79 of these permits as they are currently proposed would not comply with the Clean Water Act. EPA is not denying the permits (though under some circumstances, EPA has the authority to override Corps of Engineers decisions to issue permits). Instead, EPA is saying that all 79 of these permits need to be more closely reviewed and perhaps changed so that they would comply with the law.

Here’s what happens now:

Corps officials in the agency’s district offices will contact EPA to begin reviews on each of the 79 permits. An inter-agency agreement gives the EPA and the Corps 60 days for “enhanced coordination” to reach a “timely resolution” on the permits. This 60 days starts when the Corps notifies EPA that a permit on EPA’s list is “ready for enhanced coordination.”

Whenever “workload dictates or issue resolution warrants,” EPA or the Corps can seek a 15-day time extension.

If disagreements over a permit can’t be resolved and the 60-day clock runs out, the Corps can choose to issue a permit without EPA approval. But, it must first give EPA 10 days notice.

After that days, EPA must either back off or initiate action under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, the part of the law that allows EPA to block Corps permits it finds unacceptable.

You can read more about the Obama administration’s “enhanced coordination procedures” for reviewing these permits on EPA’s Web site here.  The list of 79 permits is here.

Updated — Here are some reactions that are coming in to this EPA announcement:

The National Mining Association —

 “Today’s decision by EPA underscores the grave concerns we have expressed since EPA’s March announcement of a moratorium on coal mining permits,” said NMA President and CEO Hal Quinn.  “Coal mining throughout Appalachia cannot reassure thousands of anxious workers and their families, and we cannot plan for the economic future of our operations absent a workable, transparent process that provides certainty.  Despite EPA’s rhetoric, its actions thus far have failed these important tests.  EPA’s answer of more delay and study is at cross-purposes with our nation’s need for affordable energy, investments and secure jobs.” 

The Sierra Club —

“We praise today’s announcement and hope it is just one of many positive actions the Obama administration will take toward ending mountaintop removal coal mining. An enhanced review of each of these pending permits will surely prove that this most destructive form of coal mining is incompatible with clean water.

“Now the only way to truly protect the people, streams and mountains of Appalachia is to reverse the Bush-era rule changes that allowed coal companies to dump waste into waterways. We call on the Obama administration to reinstate the original intent of the Clean Water Act and to prevent mining waste from being used as fill material.”

The United Mine Workers:

“We are extremely concerned that the decision to further delay 79 permits for Appalachian surface mining operations will result in layoffs of our members who work at these operations in southern West Virginia.

“This is especially troubling because these layoffs will not occur as a result of market conditions or some other economic reason, but simply because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) have yet again strung out this process without making clear what criteria companies are expected to follow with respect to their permit applications.

“We know that mine operators at mines where we represent the workers have gone to great lengths to work with the EPA and the Corps to get their permits in shape to be approved. Now, once again, they are told that they face yet more delays and uncertainty.

“It is imperative that the process for approving or rejecting permits be clarified so that everyone can know what to expect. Dragging things out only adds unnecessary pressure to coal miners, their families and their communities and makes it much more difficult to meet America’s energy and economic needs.”