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Monday, September 14, 2009

EPA Puts Halt on 79 Pending Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining Permits

As I reported last week, a moment of truth has arrived for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and President Barack Obama, who has promised “unprecedented steps” to rein in the devastating practice of mountaintop removal coal mining that is wrecking havoc across wide swaths of Appalachian mountains, valleys and communities.

Last Friday, EPA announced the preliminary fate of 79 pending permits associated with mountaintop removal coal mining sites across Appalachia: No go! the Agency said, granting stays of execution to every single permit and ruling that none of the 79 permits be streamlined for approval.

It's a move that coalfield residents and community and environmental activists have cautiously hailed as a sign that EPA may finally be moving to protect Appalachian mountains, valleys and streams - and the communities and ecosystems that call them home - from the ravages of mountaintop removal mining.

"No amount of "regulation" will make it economically sustainable or environmentally beneficial to blast the top off some of the oldest mountains in the world and dump the waste into headwater streams," said JW Randolph of Appalachian Voices, a leading organization working to end mountaintop removal and protect Appalachian communities.

Instead of traditional subsurface mining, coal mines utilizing mountaintop removal (MTR) use huge amounts of explosives to decapitate mountains and access the coal beneath, dumping the remains of these once-verdant Appalachian peaks directly on top of neighboring valleys and streams.

Mountaintop removal mining has already buried more than 800 miles of Appalachian streams and destroyed hundreds of square miles of woodlands in one of America's biodiversity hotspots, all while both the U.S. EPA and state environmental agencies have done little to curtail the practice. That's left it to activists and litigation to slow these projects down and prevent their irreversible damages - until Friday at least.

This decision is not final, but is part of an ongoing coordination process between the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Department of Interior to deal with a backlog of permits held up by litigation over the past few years. The Army Corps has already green-lighted the permits under their review process but EPA, which must also examine permit applications and determine whether or not they pose a "significant" environmental risk, has promised a more stringent and transparent review of all mountaintop removal valley fill permit applications.

The initial stay of execution from EPA headquarters indicate that every single one of these pending projects do in fact pose an environmental risk and warrant further review. Regional EPA offices now have 14 days to review and comment on the EPA Headquarters’ recommendations, after which EPA Headquarters can finalize the list of environmentally risky projects.

As Appalachian Voices explains:

If the EPA Regional offices agree with the EPA Headquarters’ assessment that these permits have “substantial environmental concerns,” an “enhanced coordination” process will begin, where the EPA and the Army Corps will study each permit on a case-by-case basis. The beginning of each coordination process sets off a 60-day period during which the two agencies must resolve any permit applications. The EPA reserves the right to exercise their veto authority over any of the unresolved permits.

In the past, the EPA was primarily absent from the approval of mountaintop removal permits, allowing the Army Corps to essentially “rubber-stamp” them. “The whole permitting process had become a bit toothless,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson admitted in a recent interview with the Tampa Bay Press. “The Corps of Engineers understands [that] when the EPA has concerns, it’s going to raise them. We’re going to do our jobs.”

"Bottom line is that, based on their own science, EPA needs to veto every single permit," said Randolph. "How does any MTR/valleyfill operation not have a significant environmental impact? Its insanity. We've been talking about mountaintop removal so long that we can say "burying 10 miles of streams" and not bat an eye. Its just insanity, and its got to stop."

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