Tuesday, March 24, 2009

EPA Expresses Concern To Corps Re: Mountaintop Mining

Mar 24: U.S. EPA has sent two letters to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expressing serious concerns about the need to reduce the potential harmful impacts on water quality caused by certain types of coal mining practices, such as mountaintop mining. The letters specifically addressed two new surface coal mining operations in West Virginia and Kentucky. EPA also intends to review other requests for mining permits. Administrator Lisa Jackson said, “The two letters reflect EPA’s considerable concern regarding the environmental impact these projects would have on fragile habitats and streams. I have directed the agency to review other mining permit requests. EPA will use the best science and follow the letter of the law in ensuring we are protecting our environment.”

EPA’s letters, sent to the Corps office in Huntington, WV, stated that the coal mines would likely cause water quality problems in streams below the mines, would cause significant degradation to streams buried by mining activities, and that proposed steps to offset these impacts are inadequate. EPA has recommended specific actions be taken to further avoid and reduce these harmful impacts and to improve mitigation. The letters were sent to the Corps by EPA senior officials in the agency’s Atlanta and Philadelphia offices. Permit applications for such projects are required by the Clean Water Act.

EPA also requested the opportunity to meet with the Corps and the mining companies seeking the new permits to discuss alternatives that would better protect streams, wetlands and rivers. The Corps is responsible for issuing Clean Water Act permits for proposed surface coal mining operations that impact streams, wetlands, and other waters. EPA is required by the act to review proposed permits and provides comments to the Corps where necessary to ensure that proposed permits fully protect water quality.

Because of active litigation in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals challenging the issuance of Corps permits for coal mining, the Corps has been issuing far fewer permits in West Virginia since the litigation began in 2007. As a result, there is a significant backlog of permits under review by the Corps. EPA said it expects to be actively involved in the review of these permits following issuance of the 4th Circuit decision last month [
See WIMS 2/17/09]. EPA said it is coordinating its action with the White House Council on Environmental Quality and with other agencies including the Corps.

At the time of the 4th Circuit decision, Earthjustice, the public interest law firm representing several of the environmental organizations in the case issued a release saying, "The ruling will permit mining companies to conduct devastating mountaintop removal coal mining operations without acting to minimize stream destruction or conducting adequate environmental reviews. As a result, Appalachia could now be facing up to 90 new mountaintop removal coal mining operations, which would destroy huge swaths of the Appalachian Mountains. We believe the decision is wrong on the law and the science. This fight is not over until mountaintop removal mining is over. We will continue to litigate, and in addition, the new administration must take immediate steps to curb the terrible practice of mountaintop removal mining and undo the mistakes of the past."

According to the letters from EPA to the Corps, one project may be "a suitable candidate for receiving an individual permit from the District"; while on another project EPA finds "extensive cumulative and other impacts" and says it is a "high potential as a candidate for a 404(c) action" granting EPA the authority to prohibit the issuance of a permit.

Access a release from EPA (
click here). Access the comment letter from Region 3 (click here). Access the comment letter from Region 4 (click here). Access EPA's Mountaintop Mining website for background (click here). [*Water]