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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Victory for the Mountains

Remember those other fossil fuels, besides oil?

Yeah, we're still fighting them too. If you're like me and want a little bit of good news amongst all the bad news from the Gulf, today is your lucky day. Today, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that they are going to stop rubber-stamping valley fill permits in Appalachia.

As of today, the Corps will stop issuing Nationwide Permit (NWP) 21, which is has been used to "authorize discharges of dredged or fill material into waters of the United States for surface coal mining activities." Valley fills are a crucial aspect to mountaintop removal mining, because once the mountaintops are blasted off, all that material needs to go somewhere. In Appalachia, that somewhere has been streams and headwaters. Without the ability to shove all that rubble, i.e. former mountain, into valleys, mountaintop removal mining becomes far less...well, feasible.

The suspension in Appalachia will remain in effect until the Corps takes further action on NWP 21 or until NWP 21 expires on March 18, 2012. While the suspension is in effect, individuals who propose surface coal mining projects that involve discharges of dredged or fill material into waters of the United States will have to obtain Department of the Army authorization under the Clean Water Act, through the Individual Permit process. The individual permit evaluation procedure provides increased public involvement in the permit evaluation process, including an opportunity for public comment on individual projects.

NWP 21 was intended for dredge and fill projects that would results in minimal aquatic impacts. By any estimation, destroying headwaters, creating new topography and polluting downstream habitats is not minimal. While this move by the Corps does not entirely eliminate the potential for additional valley fill permits in Appalachia, it does mean that there will be opportunities for public notification, comment and involvement. Nor does it stop existing mountaintop removal mines from creating valley fills. However, in this regulatory climate, it is not likely that many, if any, new individual permits will be approved.

This decision involved more than just the Army Corp of Engineers. At hearings last fall, the coal industry packed public hearings with their supporters, attempting to intimidate and drown out supporters of the Corps proposal. According to the Corps, approximately 23,000 comments were submitted, and the substantive comments were nearly evenly divided between support and opposition for the proposal. Thanks to the many brave residents of the coalfields who stood up to the coal industry and made their support known and heard. Submitting public comment is rarely a sexy for of action, but it is critical to influencing policy in the federal agencies.

Today is a good day for the mountains. Now, to stop valley fills and mountaintop removal altogether. Urge your member of Congress to cosponsor and pass H.R. 1310, the Clean Water Protection Act, and permanently ban valley fills.

Crossposted from It's Getting Hot In Here.

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