Coal Tattoo

EPA delays decision on Spruce Mine

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In this aerial photo, part of the work already done at the site of the Spruce Mine can be seen alongside Pigeonroost Hollow, at right. Photo by Vivian Stockman, flyover courtesy of Southwings.

The Obama administration announced earlier this week that it would delay making a decision on whether to veto the Spruce Mine until late September.

In this Federal Register notice, published Monday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency explained the delay this way:

EPA’s regulations require that the Regional Administrator either withdraw the Spruce No. 1 Proposed Determination or prepare a Recommended Determination within 30 days after the conclusion of the public hearing (40 CFR 231.5(a)). However, in order to allow full consideration of the extensive record, including over 4000 public comments we received, EPA finds there is good cause to extend the time period provided in 40 CFR 231.5(a) until September 24, 2010. This time extension was made under authority of 40 CFR 231.8, which allows for such extensions upon a showing of good cause.

Updated: It’s worth clarifying — sorry I didn’t do so before — that the decision EPA is talking about here is the Regional Administrators Recommended Decision under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act.  As EPA explains in this helpful Fact Sheet on the permit veto process, this Recommended Decision goes to EPA headquarters in Washington. Officials there must give the Corps of Engineers another shot at fixing the permit, and then have more time to issue a final decision — which in this case might not come until early 2011.

In a story yesterday, The New York Times opined that the fate of the Spruce Mine permit  “may predict the future of mining“, and — as the Washington Beltway media tend to do, the Times framed the story as just another part of horse-race political coverage:

Because it is one of the largest mountaintop mining projects ever and because it has been hotly disputed for a dozen years, Spruce 1 is seen as a bellwether by conservation groups and the coal industry.

The fate of the project could also have national reverberations, affecting Democratic Party prospects in coal states. While extensive research and public hearings on the plan have been completed, federal officials said that their final decision would not be announced until late this year — perhaps, conveniently, after the midterm elections.

The Times story did have an interesting update on Pigeonroost Hollow resident James Weekley:

Mr. Weekley, whose house is in sight of the project boundary, remembers the day in 1997 when he decided to fight it. Nearby mining under previous permits had filled his wooded valley with dust and noise.

“You couldn’t see out of this hollow,” he recalled. “I said, Something’s got to be done or we’re not going to have a community left.”

… Mr. Weekley said that he had rejected offers of close to $2 million for his eight acres and that he had seen the population of the nearby town of Blair dwindle to 60 from 600, with most residents bought out by Arch Coal.

A rail-thin man who enjoys sitting on his porch with a dog on his lap, Mr. Weekley uttered an expletive when told that coal industry representatives, including Mr. Raney in an interview, referred to the upper tributaries filled in by mining as “ditches” that can be rebuilt. In fact, some of the streams to be filled by Spruce 1 are intermittent, while others, including Pigeonroost Creek, flow year-round.

Meanwhile, the folks over at Climate Ground Zero have resumed their campaign of civil disobedience against mountaintop removal, with an action yesterday at Massey Energy’s Bee Tree Surface Mine.