Corps Stops Rubber Stamping of Mountaintop Removal Permits

Fast-track approach to mountain destruction is suspended

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Yesterday the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it is suspending the use of nationwide permits for mountaintop removal coal mining.

Under U.S. law, companies who wish to engage in mountaintop removal mining—this is, to use explosives to blow off the top of mountains to get to the coal underneath, and then dispose of the rubble in streams and waterways—need to get a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to do so. This permit is actually a Clean Water Act permit, and the granting of it holds that a company is abiding by the Clean Water Act, the cornerstone of water protection in the United States, and is following its requirements when it dumps its mining waste in the valley streams and waterways.

In 1982, the Army Corps of engineers established a nationwide permit (NWA Permit 21) for mountaintop removal mining operations, most of which are in Appalachia. This was a generalized, fast-track process that waived the Clean Water Act permit application for companies and automatically granted them permits. Instead of applying and going through a normal permitting process that assesses each company’s impact on the waterways and streams, this Corps permit acted as a blind rubber stamp, outright allowing companies to engage in mountaintop-removal mining without proving that Clean Water Act requirements will indeed be met.

In theory, allowing this sort of rubber-stamp mining approval process is terrible: Given that every mountaintop removal mine is different, with varying amounts of mountaintop rubble (or "overburden") and explosives, and every valley and stream is different, with different functions and depths and wildlife and ecosystems, how can one automatic and one-size-fits-all permit possibly be appropriate for all mountaintop removal mining operations?

In reality, it’s even worse—it’s an abomination: To date, mountaintop removal mining has buried more than 2,000 miles of streams in Appalachia and has contaminated thousands more of miles of streams with harmful mining wastes. How can anyone argue that these waters are being protected in light of this truth?

Until yesterday, the Army Corps of Engineers’ process was encouraging blatant violations of the Clean Water Act and condoning the destruction of vital American waterways—which we know affect the health of people, communities, ecosystems, and wildlife.

In March 2009, a U.S. District Court recognized this and ruled these nationwide permits illegal. The Corps was then ordered to discontinue use of them. Nearly a year and a half later, it has announced its official suspension of the permits.

"Using nationwide permits to rubber stamp the destruction of streams across hundreds of miles of Appalachia is an abomination," said Earthjustice senior legislative counsel Joan Mulhern upon hearing this news. "We are relieved that the Army Corps of Engineers is finally taking this permit off its books, in a move that is long overdue, but what the Corps really needs to do is change the Bush Administration policy that allows the dumping of mining waste in streams and waterways until they are destroyed and buried completely."

What Joan is referring to is a joint Army Corps-Environmental Protection Agency rule issued by the Bush Administration that wiped out 25 years of clean water protections. For the first time, the rule officially allowed industrial and mining waste to be dumped in streams, opening the door for more mountaintop removal mining companies to fill streams with the waste from blowing off the tops of mountains to mine coal.

It is long past time for this rule to be overturned and for the clean water protections that were so critical for so long to be reinstated. So while the Corps’ announcement yesterday is welcome, it needs to takes the next steps immediately to ensure that our streams and waterways are no longer used as dumping grounds for mining waste.

In the meantime, help send the message to the Obama administration and to Congress that mountaintop removal mining must be stopped!


Liz Judge worked at Earthjustice from 2010–2016. During that time, she worked on mountaintop removal mining, national forests, and clean water issues, and led the media and advocacy communications teams.