updated 9/11/2009 1:43:50 PM ET 2009-09-11T17:43:50

The Obama administration on Friday stepped up its efforts to curb environmental damage from surface coal mining, announcing plans to give 79 permit applications in four states additional scrutiny.

The Environmental Protection Agency said it wants to make certain the proposed mines won’t cause water pollution and violate the Clean Water Act. An initial review concluded all 79 probably would affect water quality and require additional study, the EPA said.

Forty-nine of the permits are for mines in Kentucky, the nation’s No. 3 coal-producing state. The list also includes 23 mines in West Virginia, the nation’s No. 2 producer behind Wyoming, six in Ohio and one in Tennessee.

The action targets a practice known as mountaintop removal mining. The highly efficient mining method involves blasting away mountaintops to expose multiple coal seams and, in most cases, filling nearby valleys with rock placed atop intermittent streams.

“Release of this preliminary list is the first step in a process to assure that the environmental concerns raised by the 79 permit applications are addressed,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in a statement.

Environmental groups cheered the administration, which they’ve been criticizing for not banning mountaintop mining altogether.

“We applaud this action by the Obama Administration to return the rule of law to the Appalachian coalfields,” Sierra Club spokeswoman Mary Anne Hitt said in a statement. “The next step in the administration’s review process should confirm that these permits cannot be issued.”

The San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network called the news a “moment of truth” for the administration.

“EPA has taken an important stand in support of the people and ecosystems of Appalachia,” Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement. “The agency seems to recognize that there is no environmentally safe way to demolish mountains.”

U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., who is sponsoring legislation that would ban mountaintop mining, praised the action, but said it is not enough.

“The general practice of mountaintop removal mining and the associated valley fills continues to be a major problem and must end,” Cardin said in a statement.

The coal industry blasted the decision, saying it jeopardizes tens of thousands of high-paying jobs.

“By deciding to hold up for still further review coal mining permits pending in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee, the agency damages a weak economy struggling to recover in the worst recession in postwar history,” National Mining Association President Hal Quinn said in a statement.

Mountaintop mines in the states where the practice is most common — West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee — produce about 130 million tons of coal each year, or about 14 percent of the coal used to produce electricity in the U.S., and employ about 14,000 people.

The EPA said it’s going to review the permits in tandem with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under an agreement worked out in June. The corps actually issues the so-called valley fill permits, though the EPA has a say in the process and under Obama has been doing so more frequently.

Last week, EPA asked the corps to suspend, revoke or modify a permit issued for a West Virginia mine two years ago. U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has asked the EPA to retract the request. Rockefeller said EPA’s action creates uncertainty in the coalfields, among other things.

EPA spokeswoman Adora Andy said the agency is sticking by its request.

“We take the senator’s concerns seriously but believe that this mine raises unique and serious issues that deserve further consideration by the Army Corps of Engineers,” she said in an e-mail.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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