EPA Tightens-up on Mountain Top Mining, Considers Permit Veto

Since the beginning of 2009 the EPA has reviewed 178 proposed coal mines and only signed-off on 48, including 2 mountian top mines approved at the beginning of January.  This new, stricter approach is creating quite a controversy – particularly where mountain top mining is concerned. Currently the EPA is trying to provide guidance and clarify requirements while they continue to review permits.

On March 26th, the EPA released a press release stating that they are considering a veto for a mountain top mining permit that was issued by the US Army Corps of Engineers for the largest ever mountain top mine, which is located in the Coal River Basin area of West Virginia. The EPA has veto authority, but only has used this authority twelve times in nearly 40 years and never before for project that already has been permitted.

Despite the controversy, the EPA is mandated to ensure water quality and has valid concerns. In letters to the Army Corps of Engineers , the EPA expressed it’s concerns that not all relevant information was included during initial consideration of the permit, that sufficient valley fill minimization techniques were not incorporated, and that the operation will contribute to the substantial cumulative impacts in the area, including covering up of 7 miles of stream bed. The EPA and operator of the proposed mine have discussed the issue but failed to come to an agreement and the Army Corps of Engineers has refused to re-evaluate the permit – hence the EPA’s consideration of the veto. The EPA has put their proposed review out for public comment and then will be reviewing comments received and making a final decision whether or not to veto the project.

This is why we have an agency tasked with ensuring water quality. It may not be popular with everyone, but due to their nature mountain top mines damage streams through valley fill activities and the lands are particularly problematic to restore. It is possible for such a project to have irreversible impacts and if this project is not a good one then it should be vetoed and sent back to the drawing board.


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One response to “EPA Tightens-up on Mountain Top Mining, Considers Permit Veto

  1. rnicholson78712

    In reading this post, it is quite peculiar that the EPA felt it necessary to rebuke the Army Corps of Engineers for what seems to be a typical requirement for issuing a mountain top mining permit: valley fill minimization techniques being up to environmental standards. For the EPA to consider a veto on a previously approved mine would signal that the Army Corps of Engineers or some other regulatory body either was not able have access to vital information on environmental impacts, which caused an honest mistake, or was negligent in its initial approval for the permit.

    According to the EPA report on this issue in West Virginia, The Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) prepared its first Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on these mountain top mines, required by law for every considered project, in 2002. Upon analyzing this report, the EPA found “gaps in the analyses of the proposed mine and related adverse environmental impacts” concerning nearby “high quality streams.” From the Corps’ inadequate information, the EPA forced a second EIS to be prepared. (It would be interesting to find out how often the EPA has ordered such secondary EIS reports.)

    In the 2006 second report, the EPA still issued concerns about the lack of thorough information on the potential effects on surrounding streams. In additions to the criticisms, the EPA went so far as to offer assistance to the Corps to help investigate and fill in the gaps in vital environmental information, but the departmental cooperation never happened. Even with all these vivid concerns, the Corps still awarded the permit in January 2007, and the fights among the miners, the general public in West Virginia, the EPA and environmental groups have prolonged ever since.

    The unfortunate circumstance in this saga is that much of the blame for this controversy lies on the Corps for being negligent on adequately inspecting the most basic of environmental concerns: clean water. Even with the EPA’s continued persistence on this issue for years, which would seem to be a rare occurrence, the Corps issued the permit anyway. From this, all sides in this issue must make the Corps accountable for brewing this issue to a boil. The EPA was doing its job all along and, unfortunately, is forced to play the unpopular role of enviro-policeman in this case. This creates the most savory of political issues for all those involved when this all could have been easily prevented if the Corps were to have investigated the mines properly.

    An EPA veto for a Corps-approved project would be unprecedented; but the repeated refusal of the Corps to heed the warnings of the EPA would seem to so egregious that it would obligate the EPA to take such drastic actions, despite the political consequences.

    EPA Document on the mountain top mines in question in West Virginia: EPA-R03-OW-209-0985
    http://www.epa.gov/region03/mtntop/pdf/sprucepropdeterm.pdf (p. 7-9)

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