The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today announced the preliminary fate of 79 valley fill permit applications associated with mountaintop removal coal mining. In a move that pleased environmentalists and coalfield residents in central and southern Appalachia, the EPA recommended that none of the 79 permits be streamlined for approval. iLoveMountains has an interactive map and action page, as well as a little helpful background on what these permits are and why they are being announced today.
This decision is not final, but is part of a coordination procedure outlined in a June “memorandum of understanding” between the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Department of Interior to deal with a backlog of permits held up by litigation over the past few years. The EPA has promised a more stringent and transparent review of all mountaintop removal valley fill permit applications.
Willa Mays, executive director for Appalachian Voices, a regional environmental group, was delighted about the EPA’s preliminary list. “By recommending these permits not be approved, the EPA and the Army Corps has demonstrated their intention to fulfill a promise to provide science-based oversight which will limit the devastating environmental impacts of mountaintop removal mining,” Mays said. “EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Army Corps Assistant Secretary Jo-Ellen Darcy and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Terrence “Rock” Salt have shown exceptional leadership. This is indeed good news especially paired with the fact that 156 members of the House of Representatives are now cosponsors of the Clean Water Protection Act.”
The reaction from coalfield residents was mostly optimistic. Chuck Nelson, retired union coal miner from Glen Daniel, W.Va., and board member of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition said, “By recommending these permits be further reviewed, the EPA is allowing at least a temporary reprieve for the people of Appalachia. It appears the EPA is starting to take the concerns of coalfield residents into account when considering these permits.”
Vernon Haltom, co-director of Coal River Mountain Watch in Raleigh County, W.Va., was excited about the announcement. “We who live with the nightmare of mountaintop removal are glad that the EPA is beginning to do its job to protect our communities,” he said. “Our life-giving water resources are priceless, and it’s refreshing to see the EPA finally prioritizing them over coal companies’ short-term profits.”
As outlined in the memorandum, EPA regional offices will be given 14 days to review and comment on the EPA headquarters’ recommendations, after which EPA headquarters can finalize the list.
If the EPA regional offices agree with the EPA headquarters’ assessment that these permits have “substantial environmental concerns,” an “enhanced coordination” process will begin, where the EPA and the Army Corps will study each permit on a case-by-case basis. The beginning of each coordination process sets off a 60-day period during which the two agencies must resolve any permit applications. The EPA reserves the right to exercise their veto authority over any of the unresolved permits.
In the past, the EPA was primarily absent from the approval of mountaintop removal permits, allowing the Army Corps to essentially “rubber-stamp” them. “The whole permitting process had become a bit toothless,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson admitted in a recent interview with the Tampa Bay Press. “The Corps of Engineers understands [that] when the EPA has concerns, it’s going to raise them. We’re going to do our jobs.”
In 2002, the Bush Administration expedited the permitting process by classifying mining waste as acceptable “fill material” as defined by the Clean Water Act. Valley fills are created when toxic debris from mountaintop removal mining is dumped into valleys adjacent to the mine sites, burying headwater streams and permanently damaging the hydrology of the watershed system.
“I’m glad the EPA has admitted they have some responsibility for protecting people and nature from mountaintop removal,” said Cathie Bird of Save Our Cumberland Mountains in Tennessee. “But I worry they still don’t get it. This brutal practice kills whole communities and watersheds, and it should be banned, not one permit at a time but once and forever.”
To view the permits in map form, visit the Permit Shortlist Google Map created by Appalachian Voices at http://www.ilovemountains.org/epa-permit-list.