Image: Mountaintop removal mine site
Jeff Gentner  /  AP
This mountaintop removal mine is atop Kayford Mountain in West Virginia.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 3/24/2009 4:14:39 PM ET 2009-03-24T20:14:39

Dozens of mountaintop coal-mining permits will be reviewed for their potential impacts on streams and wetlands, the Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday in breaking with Bush administration policy.

Announced by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, the move targets a controversial practice by coal mining companies that blasts away whole peaks and sends mining waste into streams and wetlands. It does not apply to existing mines, but to requests for new permits, a number estimated to be as high as 200.

EPA spokeswoman Adora Andy said the agency does not expect problems with the overwhelming majority of permits.

The EPA also urged the Army Corps of Engineers not to issue permits for two new projects unless their impacts were reduced. The projects would allow companies to fill thousands of feet of streams with mining waste at two sites in West Virginia and Kentucky.

"The two letters reflect EPA’s considerable concern regarding the environmental impact these projects would have on fragile habitats and streams," Jackson said in a statement.

"I have directed the agency to review other mining permit requests" as well, she added. "EPA will use the best science and follow the letter of the law in ensuring we are protecting our environment."

The EPA said the letters stated that the projects "would likely cause water quality problems in streams below the mines, would cause significant degradation to streams buried by mining activities, and that proposed steps to offset these impacts are inadequate."

The agency said it had also "recommended specific actions be taken to further avoid and reduce these harmful impacts and to improve mitigation."

The EPA said it would be actively involved in the review of the long list of permits awaiting approval by the Corps, a signal that the agency under the Obama administration will exercise its oversight. The EPA has the authority to review and veto any permit issued by the Corps under the Clean Water Act, but under the Bush administration it did that rarely.

"If the EPA didn't step in and do something now, all those permits would go forward," said Joe Lovett, executive director for the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment. "There are permits that will bury 200 miles of streams pending before the Corps," he claimed.

Recent court ruling
Last month, a federal appeals court ruled the Army Corps did have the authority to issue Clean Water Act permits for mountaintop removal coal mines without more extensive reviews.

The ruling was a blow to environmentalists and some mine neighbors who oppose the highly efficient but destructive practice that exposes thin, shallow coal seams. Rocks, dirt and other debris typically are dumped into valleys containing intermittent streams, which is how clean water rules become involved.

The coal industry says most of the nearly 130 million tons of coal produced at mountaintop mines in Appalachia goes to generate electricity for 24.7 million customers. Moreover, mountaintop mines employ some 14,000 people across West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Mountaintop permits have slowed to a trickle since March 2007, when the Corps was ordered by U.S. District Judge Chuck Chambers to rescind several permits. It was Chambers' ruling that the appeals court overturned last month.

Industry predicts more job losses
Coal companies have been cutting production, closing mines and laying off workers across the country amid anemic demand, particularly for utility coal overseas and coking coal used to fire steel mill blast furnaces. At least 1,310 jobs have been trimmed at various Appalachian mines in recent weeks.

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

"It's almost like the EPA's trying to skirt the 4th Circuit appeals decision and do whatever they want to do," Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Caylor said. "We would lose half our production in east Kentucky."

Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, said further delays in the permits would cost the region high-paying jobs. "This is very troubling, not only for jobs in the region, but production of coal generally," said Raulston.

The low-sulfur, high-energy coal produced from those mines is not easily replaced. The industry has long maintained that eliminating mountaintop mining will lead to increased imports from countries that have far fewer environmental safeguards.

The practice has a huge economic impact in Appalachia. Mountaintop mines employ some 14,000 people across the four states. Wages average about $62,000 — high pay for rural Appalachia — and states make millions in taxes.

"It just absolutely puzzles me as to why the same federal government that's trying to straighten the economy out wants to dismantle the economy of another state, particularly as it relates to the workers at these sites," said West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney. West Virginia is the nation's second-largest coal producing state behind Wyoming.

More on Mountaintop mining |  Army Corps of Engineers

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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