- The Washington Times - Friday, June 12, 2009

The Obama administration on Thursday announced steps to reduce the environmental destruction caused in six states by mountaintop coal mining.

The government will seek to eliminate the expedited reviews that have made it easier for mining companies to blast off Appalachian mountaintops and discard the rubble in valleys where streams flow.

The agreement among three federal agencies includes changes to tighten federal oversight and environmental screening of mountaintop coal mining in Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

Nancy Sutley, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers will set clear standards, ensuring that communities in coal-mining regions have clean streams and drinking water.

Mining waste dumped into waterways can diminish water quality for fish and other aquatic organisms, and taint sources of drinking water.

Mountaintop mines in the states where the practice is most used - West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee - produce nearly 130 million tons of coal each year, or about 14 percent of the coal that produces electricity, and employ about 14,000 people.

“The Obama administration has serious concerns about the impacts of mountaintop coal mining on our natural resources and on the health and welfare of Appalachian communities,” Miss Sutley said. “Within this plan the Obama administration is doing all it can under existing laws and regulations to curb the most environmentally destructive impacts of mountaintop coal mining.”

Just a handful of permits had been issued for Appalachian mines since a federal court decision in 2007 found that the Corps of Engineers was not doing enough to protect water resources from mountaintop projects. That ruling was reversed earlier this year, and mine operators had hoped it would lead to the approval of long-delayed permits.

Now they are concerned the administration’s action will again make it difficult to get permits.

“The whole permitting process has become much more complicated, more uncertain, and it is clearly going to take longer,” said Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association.

Hours before the announcement, Obama administration officials called regulators in the affected states to deliver a much different message.

“The purposes stated today [were] to actually make [the permit process] more effective, make it more efficient, make it more transparent. And say ‘yes’ more quickly and ‘no’ more quickly,” said Len Peters, Kentucky’s energy and environmental secretary.

President Obama, as a candidate, expressed concern about the mountaintop mining although he stopped short of calling for an outright ban.

His administration has cast a more critical eye on the process than did the Bush administration, which was accused of granting permits with little scrutiny. In March, the EPA announced it would more take a closer look at about 150 mountaintop mining permits pending before the Army Corps to ensure the projects would not harm streams and wetlands.

The agency objected to some projects but has said dozens probably would be allowed to go ahead.

In April, the Interior Department asked a federal judge to vacate a Bush rule that makes it easier to dump mining waste near waterways.

The expedited reviews, in place since 1982, allow mining companies proposing similar projects to get a general permit under the Clean Water Act, rather than being evaluated on a case-by-case basis. About 30 percent of mountaintop removal projects are permitted under the general permit to discharge waste into streams, according to administration officials.

• AP writers Tim Huber and Dylan T. Lovan contributed to this report.

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