updated 4/1/2010 5:02:21 PM ET 2010-04-01T21:02:21

The Obama administration Thursday spelled out tighter water quality standards for surface coal mines in Appalachia in a move that could curtail mountaintop removal mining.

The policy will sharply reduce the practice of filling valleys with waste from mountaintop removal and other types of surface mines in a six-state region, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson said.

The policy met with immediate praise from opponents who consider mountaintop mining too destructive and disappointment from mine operators who say the new approach will eliminate many valuable jobs.

The agency also released two reports discussing watershed damage in the region from surface mining. Burying streams with mine wastes increases salt levels in waterways downstream, hurting fish and other aquatic life, the EPA said. Jackson said the new policy should protect 95 percent of aquatic life.

"You're talking about either no or very few valley fills," Jackson said. "That's just the truth, that's the science of it."

The lone major permit approved by federal regulators since Jackson began cracking down on Appalachian surface mining a year ago includes no valley fills.

"These new guidelines will reduce the destruction caused by mountaintop removal, and communities will be able to focus on building a clean energy economy," Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement.

Virginia-based Massey Energy, one of the largest producers in the affected region, provided a chart showing San Pellegrino and Perrier mineral waters exceed the EPA standard, as did water from a pond at a southern West Virginia mine.

"We're deeply concerned by the impact this policy will have on employment and economic activity throughout the Appalachian region," National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich said.

The organization's figures show surface mines in the six states covered by the policy produced more than 150 million tons of coal and employed nearly 20,500 people in 2008. U.S. production totaled more than 1.17 billion that year.

"To painstakingly try to limit the impacts to one kind of mining operation, to a single industry and to future operations is frankly disingenuous," Popovich said.

The EPA is applying the policy in West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and Tennessee. "All the science here and all the data, much of it comes from the state of West Virginia," Jackson said.

She said it may be applied to underground mining as well, though that practice typically is more palatable to environmental groups. "Please don't think we won't look at and use this same science in evaluating other types of operations," she said.

West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman questioned EPA's approach, saying the agency was changing the permitting process through a guidance document rather than regulations. "They put the standards they want on the mining industry without going through any legal framework," he said.

Moreover, Huffman said EPA's new standard is lower than what his agency had determined was protective of water quality and aquatic life.

"The geology and other characteristics of a stream impact are what causes adverse impacts or doesn't," he said. "There is not a one-size fits all for dissolved solids. That's one of the concerns of the approach EPA is taking here."

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