This blog post co-written by Bruce Nilles and Mary Anne Hitt, Director and Deputy Director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.

We’ve just learned that the clock has started ticking on more than 80 new mountaintop removal coal mining permits in Appalachia. We are told that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may start approving these permits within the next month — or even sooner. All this is according to a timeline set in an agreement between the EPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Department of Interior.

According to that agreement, once the Army Corps has handed over all pertinent information about the permits, EPA will have 60 days to decide which permits concern the agency, and all the rest will be allowed to go forward. That 60-day countdown has now begun.

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If you’ll remember, early in the Obama Administration, EPA announced it would be reviewing all mountaintop removal mining permits before approving any — a sign of what we thought was perhaps the beginning of the end for the destructive practice that levels mountain peaks, poisons drinking water and destroys communities.

But now, the floodgates could potentially be opened wide for extensive new mountaintop removal operations. The EPA will be making decisions on dozens of permits as soon as mid-September, and letting the permits go forward would set a very dangerous precedent.

If these new permits for mountaintop removal coal mining are approved, the Obama Administration will be lighting the fuse for a new round of blasting, flooding, and water contamination for the communities of Appalachia. Hundreds more permits currently hang in the balance, as does the fate of hundreds of miles of streams and more than 60,000 acres of diverse hardwood forests — see a full list of pending permits here.

The Clean Water Act was intended to prevent the destruction that has gone on for far too long. By allowing these permits to go forward, President Obama is sending a signal that his commitment to science, the letter of the law, and balancing economic growth with good environmental stewardship does not apply to Appalachia.

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Scientists have long pointed out that once these streams are buried and ecosystems destroyed, they will never fully recover. Entire communities have been permanently displaced by mines the size of Manhattan.

There is too much at stake in Appalachia to approve any more mountaintop removal coal mines. To date, mining companies have buried close to 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams beneath piles of toxic waste and debris.

Using waste material to fill waterways was prohibited by the Clean Water Act until 2002 when the Bush administration changed the rules. Using the so-called “Fill Rule,” the Bush administration opened waters throughout Appalachia, and across the country, to serve as potential dumping grounds for heavy industry.

The problem is that EPA can approve these permits because they are still under rules lingering from the Bush Administration. The Obama Administration, however, can change these rules through the proper channels, stopping the destruction.

To truly end this most destructive form of mining, the Obama Administration must act decisively to change the rule that allows companies to dump waste into streams and valleys and call it “fill material.”

The clock is ticking, but President Obama still has a chance to end mountaintop removal coal mining. You can help by contacting the White House today.

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