EPA Backtracks on Mountaintop Coal Mining

Just when you thought it might be safe to go hiking in West Virginia’s mountains or along its streams, the EPA apparently has caved to the interests of Big Coal by signing off on one Clean Water Act permit for a mountaintop coal mining project in that state and preparing the way for the eventual approval of a second permit.

The agency this week told the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that it supports issuing a Clean Water Act permit for Patriot Coal’s Hobet 45 mine in Lincoln County.  EPA’s press release said it made this decision “after extensive discussions between EPA and the company resulted in additional significant protections against environmental impacts.”

In addition, the EPA and the mining operator Mingo Logan Mining Company, a subsidiary of Arch Coal, asked a federal district court to extend the court’s own deadline to respond to the mining company’s earlier request to end litigation on the proposed Spruce No. 1 mine in Logan County. This legal maneuver sets the stage for EPA and Arch to work out their differences and for EPA to determine if a revised mining plan can be developed that will comply with the Clean Water Act.

The EPA had determined in October that Spruce No. 1 “raised significant environmental and water quality concerns” and halted further action on the company’s Clean Water permit process.

If allowed to proceed, Spruce No.1 will clear 2,200 acres of forest, bury more than seven miles of headwater streams, and further contaminate the downstream water supply. It’s hard to imagine how the extension to March 1 will suddenly fix those problems, but it will allow the agency, the mining company, and the Corps to “continue their coordination,” the agency says. Meanwhile, no additional mining operations may occur at the site until EPA determines the project complies with the Clean Water Act.

EPA is calling the decisions a “path forward” for the two projects but they are a step backward. At the very least it kicks off 2010 with new lines drawn for a painfully arduous political, regulatory and legal battle over mountaintop removal coal mining, which literally blows the top of off a mountain, choking nearby streams and destroying habitat in the process.

The Hobet 45 decision marks the first mountaintop removal mining permit to move forward out of the 79 mining permits the agency identified in 2009 as needing additional attention.

“This decision highlights the urgent need for the U.S. EPA to protect streams from mining waste by revising Clean Water Act regulations gutted by the Bush Administration,” a statement from the Sierra Club said.

“Sadly, the coal industry’s undue influence over decision-makers has traded people’s health, communities, and water for profit,” says a statement from Janet Keating, executive director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. “We’re shooting ourselves in the future. After all the coal has been mined, what kind of economic development can happen when the water is unfit to drink and people have been driven away?”

The permit would allow Patriot to mine through more than three miles of streams, and to add millions of cubic yards of fill to existing valley fills off-site.

“We, the affected citizens that are living with the impacts of this destructive mining practice, pray that this decision is not a preview of other destructive mining permits being approved,” adds Judy Bonds with Coal River Mountain Watch. “We certainly hope this is the last destructive permit approved that will allow the coal industry to continue to blast our homes and pollute our streams.”

A big disappointment from the EPA but it also might be a politically expedient trade-off to keep its activist agenda moving on other fronts, namely monitoring and regulating GHG emissions. For one thing, the Senate is preparing to vote on an amendment to pending debt legislation this month that would strip the EPA of its ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions for one year.

Counting votes in the Senate in order to get anything done is becoming a way of life.

writer, editor, reader and general good (ok mostly good, well sometimes good) guy trying to get by

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