EPA Plans Scientific Scrutiny of New Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining Permits

Agency announces further environmental review of dozens of permits, citing harmful impacts to waterways, legal concerns


Raviya Ismail, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500, ext. 221 

Today the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it has concerns about the environmental harm that would be caused by the issuance of dozens of mountaintop removal permits that the agency had been reviewing since June. EPA’s actions were welcomed by local and national groups working to end the practice of mountaintop removal. While noting it is only a first step, the groups commended EPA for its decision.

“EPA’s action today creates a welcome reprieve for the people who live below these enormous mining sites and the waste dumps they put into our waters,” said Judy Bonds, co-director of Coal River Mountain Watch. “We will continue our fight for a total, complete reprieve for our children and for our beloved mountains and streams.”

Of the 79 permits under review, EPA has determined that — for each and every permit at issue — the destruction of streams and harm to watersheds in the region raise questions about the legality of the permits under the Clean Water Act. Under a procedure adopted by the Obama administration in June, EPA’s action today is expected to trigger a 60-day joint review of the permits between EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, if the Corps disagrees with EPA’s initial review. Assistant Secretary of the Army Jo-Ellen Darcy joined EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in making the announcement.

“We applaud this action by the Obama administration to return the rule of law to the Appalachian coalfields,” said Mary Anne Hitt, Deputy Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “The next step in the administration’s review process should confirm that these permits cannot be issued. The ultimate solution to protecting communities, mountains and streams is to now revise Bush administration rules to make clear that mining and other industrial waste cannot be used to fill streams.”

“While many mountains, streams and communities continue to be impacted or annihilated by mountaintop removal because of years of lawless mining, EPA’s announcement today provides people with some hope that from this day forward, real science and laws will be applied before any more permits are issued,” said Janet Keating, executive director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. “The public needs to know that this announcement does not apply to existing mountaintop removal permits. We ask that our politicians don’t cry that ‘the sky is falling,’ but instead let the scientific experts at EPA do the job that taxpayers expect of them — to protect our water, air and land for us and for future generations.”

“We are pleased, but not surprised, that these 79 mines failed to pass muster under the Clean Water Act at this stage in the review. We have been saying for years that these types of mines are too destructive to proceed,” said Joe Lovett, executive director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment. “It is satisfying to know that there are finally leaders at EPA and in other federal environmental agencies who are willing to acknowledge that reality.”

“For this stage in the permitting review process, EPA is doing the right thing, and we commend Administrator Jackson for her leadership,” said Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for Earthjustice. “These mines, if permitted, would destroy many miles of streams in a region already devastated by mountaintop removal. We are confident that if EPA and the Corps do the ‘enhanced’ review as promised, they will determine that all of the mines with valley fills will cause unacceptable harm and violate the law. The next step should not only be to conduct the review and deny permits for mines that destroy waters, but the administration must also reinstate the clean water rules that prevented industries from dumping their waste into streams.”

In contrast to the result of an earlier review of other similar permits, where EPA allowed some mines like Peg Fork that have destructive valley fills to proceed even though they would cause unlawful destruction of waterways, EPA’s action today shows that it is now looking closely at the law and science in its permit review process and also providing some welcome public transparency. Earlier this year, the EPA conducted a review of 48 applications pending before the Army Corps of Engineers for Clean Water Act permits to fill streams. At the end of its review, the EPA identified the Peg Fork mine and five other mines as projects of high concern, and instructed the Army Corps not to issue those permits. Unfortunately, the EPA raised no objections to 42 of those 48 mines, and eventually allowed the issuance of the Peg Fork mine permit with minimal additional conditions. Despite that decision, those permits still fail to satisfy the requirements for permits issued under the Clean Water Act. Many of these permits would still have unacceptable adverse impacts on local waterways and therefore violate the Clean Water Act.

Mining operations have already destroyed at least 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams, permanently burying them beneath piles of toxic waste and debris. Entire communities have been permanently displaced by mines and an area the size of Delaware has been flattened.

More information on pending permits and the effects they would have on Appalachia

More information on mountaintop removal mining

Additional Resources

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