In an absolutely stunning announcement, U.S. EPA has sent two letters to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expressing EPA’s serious concerns about the need to reduce the potential harmful impacts on water quality caused by certain types of coal mining practices, such as mountaintop mining. The letters specifically addressed two new surface coal mining operations in West Virginia and Kentucky. EPA also intends to review other requests for mining permits. EPA’s announcement is a dramatic 180 degree turnabout from the position of the Bush-Chaney EPA under Stephen A. Johnson.
EPA’s letters, sent to the Corps office in Huntington, W.Va., stated that the coal mines would likely cause water quality problems in streams below the mines, would cause significant degradation to streams buried by mining activities, and that proposed steps to offset these impacts are inadequate. EPA has recommended specific actions be taken to further avoid and reduce these harmful impacts and to improve mitigation.
The letters were sent to the Corps by EPA senior officials in the agency’s Atlanta and Philadelphia offices. Permit applications for such projects are required by the Clean Water Act. EPA also requested the opportunity to meet with the Corps and the mining companies seeking the new permits to discuss alternatives that would better protect streams, wetlands and rivers.
The Corps is responsible for issuing Clean Water Act permits for proposed surface coal mining operations that impact streams, wetlands, and other waters. EPA is required by the act to review proposed permits and provides comments to the Corps where necessary to ensure that proposed permits fully protect water quality.
Because of active litigation in the 4th Circuit challenging the issuance of Corps permits for coal mining, the Corps has been issuing far fewer permits in West Virginia since the litigation began in 2007. As a result, there is a significant backlog of permits under review by the Corps. EPA expects to be actively involved in the review of these permits following issuance of the 4th Circuit decision last month.
EPA is coordinating its action with the White House Council on Environmental Quality and with other agencies including the Corps. More information on wetlands and the letters: http://www.epa.gov/owow/wetlands/