CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration on Thursday announced new water pollution guidelines aimed at greatly reducing what scientists say is the increasingly evident damage to Appalachian streams from mountaintop removal coal mining.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said "no or very few valley fills" would be approved under new restrictions EPA regional offices will impose on state regulators under the federal Clean Water Act.
In a detailed new guidance memo, EPA said it would more closely examine the potential impact of mining proposals on the electrical conductivity of streams, which is a strong measure of many harmful pollutants from mining and has been linked to aquatic life damage.
EPA cited the findings of previous agency studies, peer-reviewed scientific papers and the conclusions of two new major reviews of mountaintop removal impacts by EPA's own Office of Research and Development.
The EPA announcement drew harsh criticism from the mining industry, cautious comments from coalfield politicians, and praise from environmental groups and from water quality scientists.
"It's a very positive step forward," said Margaret Palmer, a University of Maryland biologist who has been studying mining impacts. "It's a clear sign that this administration wants to base policy on sound science."
The Sierra Club called the EPA guidelines "the most significant administrative action ever taken to address mountaintop removal coal mining," while the National Mining Association called EPA's science "both flawed and limited in its findings and application as justification for today's announcement."
EPA released its guidance more than a year after initially announcing a crackdown on mountaintop removal and beginning more detailed permit reviews that have drawn intense criticism from the industry and its political supporters.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said the EPA announcement "will hopefully now have everyone reading off the same page" and provided a "clearer, concise policy on moving forward with mountaintop mining permits and water quality issues."
In mountaintop removal, coal operators use explosives to blast off entire hilltops and uncover valuable low-sulfur coal reserves. Leftover rock and dirt is shoved into nearby valleys, burying streams.
Industry officials consider the method to be highly efficient and the only way to reach some thin seams of Appalachian coal. But critics point to the fewer number of workers mountaintop removal needs, and a growing body of science shows that forests, water quality and community health are threatened by mining practices.
In the case of conductivity, a widely cited EPA study published two years ago found that levels above 500 on a scaled measured in micro-siemens per centimeter could impair aquatic life in streams.