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Army Corps Suspends Streamlined Permits for Mountaintop Removal

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Today the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in compliance with new Obama administration policy on mountaintop removal coal mining, has proposed eliminating the use of its streamlined permit process for the approval of surface coal mining in Appalachia.  For far too long, the use of the infamous Nationwide Permit 21 -- or NWP 21 -- has made it far too easy for coal companies to obtain quick permission to dump excess dirt, rock and debris produced by mountaintop removal directly into the valley -- and their streams -- below mining operations on Appalachian summits.

The proposed regulations, which are now open for a 30-day public comment period, are printed in today's Federal Register.  They read (in part):

"[T]he Corps proposes to modify NWP 21 to prohibit its use to authorize discharges of dredged or fill material into waters of the United States for surface coal mining activities in the Appalachian region...The proposed modification would enhance environmental protection of aquatic resources by requiring surface coal mining projects in the affected region to obtain individual permit coverage under the Clean Water Act (CWA), which includes increased public and agency involvement in the permit review process, including an opportunity for public comment on individual projects."   

Ken Ward's Coal Tattoo blog dives into the particulars of this regulatory proposal.  Suffice it to say that the net result should be positive, as mountaintop removal projects will now require an individual permit, which entails a more stringent approval process.  However, the new regs notwithstanding, what is warranted is not a slightly stricter permit approval process but immediate action by the Obama administration to abolish the very practice of mountaintop removal -- the most destructive strip mining on the planet.

After all, what we're talking about is the sheer insanity of permitting the decapitation of entire mountaintops, as seen below:

There ought to be a law against this.  And with your help there can be: Help save America's oldest mountains by urging Congress to pass legislation to stop mountaintop removal. 

But we shouldn't have to wait for Congress to act on this.  The Obama administration should realize that regulating mountaintop removal is not the solution; stopping this mining madness is the only option.  I have great hope that if President Obama would actually go see the devastation for himself, he'll order an immediate end it. 

Recently, NRDC and a few of our allies met with top EPA officials to discuss the agency's plans to more rigorously review pending permits for valley fills in Appalachia.  Frankly, the agency's efforts fall short.  In a joint follow-up letter, we advised EPA that the federal government must fundamentally change its policy with regard to mountaintop removal.  We wrote:

"Today, with the government's blessing, coal companies mine through and bury Appalachian streams under waste dumps.  It is difficult to conceive of a practice more inconsistent with the Clean Water Act's purpose, yet the destruction of the region's watersheds is occurring thanks to Clean Water Act permits from the Army Corps of Engineers.  In addition, the blasting, noise, dust and flooding caused by this mining are forcing coalfield residents out of the homes they have lived in for generations and ruining their lives.  Although we appreciate the interest that this administration has taken in the harm that this practice is causing, and for the efforts you have begun to undertake to better scrutinize proposed operations, the simple fact is that mountaintop mining cannot be made environmentally tolerable or reconciled with faithful implementation of the law."

We pointed out that the EPA, Interior Department and Army Corps already have the tools to rein in this mining.  Indeed, under current law, almost none of the mountaintop mines permitted by the Corps and state agencies comply with the Clean Water Act, SMCRA or NEPA.  Therefore, we advised Obama environmental officials to take steps immediately to stop this senseless pollution.  We also asked that EPA use its current authority to enforce the Clean Water Act, reverse the 2002 "fill" rule, and end the practice of deeming stream segments below valley fills as "waste treatment systems."  We also sought assurance that the Stream Buffer Zone Rule will be strictly interpreted and enforced.

We explained that, as federal officials revisit these policies they recognize taht there is no need to create a new set of criteria to screen mountaintop mining permits.  EPA already has clear authority and duties to stop mountaintop mines and just needs to exercise its legal and regulatory muscle to prevent the permits from being issued.

Finally, we stressed that EPA must render a policy decision before, not after, it reviews the 100+ pending mountaintop removal permits. Otherwise, EPA's possible acquiescence in Corps permits that fall below legal standards would likely cause serious and permanent environmental harm, and may be viewed as an endorsement of those permits and thereby restrict EPA's ability to correct its position in the future.

We absolutely welcome the Obama administration's increased scrutiny of the world's worst coal mining and remain encouraged by the promise of greater oversight and possible action.  However, the true test of the administration's new policy toward mountaintop removal is whether rigorous regulatory review will deliver on the promise of greater environmental protection -- something that can only be accomplished by an outright ban on the cause of Appalachia's senseless destruction.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.

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