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EPA to review coal-mining permits

The agency puts hundreds of mountaintop mining requests on hold so it can study impacts of dumping debris into waterways.

March 25, 2009|Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency put hundreds of mountaintop coal-mining permits on hold Tuesday to evaluate the projects' impact on streams and wetlands.

The decision by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson targets a controversial practice that allows coal mining companies to dump waste from mountaintop mining into streams and wetlands.

Between 150 and 200 applications for new or expanded surface coal mines, many of them mountaintop removal operations, are pending before the federal government. EPA spokeswoman Adora Andy said the agency did not expect problems with the overwhelming majority of permits.

The permits are issued by the Army Corps of Engineers, which has been criticized by environmental groups and has been sued on allegations of failing to thoroughly evaluate the environmental impact of mountaintop removal.

Under the Clean Water Act, companies cannot discharge rock, dirt and other debris into streams unless they can show that it will not cause permanent damage to waterways or the fish and other wildlife that live in them.

Last month, a three-judge appeals panel in Richmond, Va., overturned a lower court's ruling that would have required the corps to conduct more extensive reviews. That decision cleared the way for a backlog of permits that had been delayed until the lawsuit was resolved.

The EPA's action Tuesday could leave those permit requests in limbo a little longer.

Ginger Mullins, regulatory branch chief for a corps district covering portions of Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina, said the EPA reviews would delay approval of projects.

The EPA said in a statement that it would be actively involved in the review of the long list of permits awaiting approval by the corps. The EPA has the authority to review and veto any permit issued by the army Corps of Engineers, but under the Bush administration it rarely did so.

"There are permits that will bury 200 miles of streams pending before the corps," said Joe Lovett, executive director for the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment.

The EPA action stunned the coal industry, which had been breathing easily since the mid-February ruling by the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

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