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Corps to broaden reviews of valley fill applications

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration on Friday announced another step toward tougher regulation of mountaintop removal, with a federal Army Corps of Engineers proposal to broaden its review of valley fill permit applications for the coal industry.

Corps officials said they would begin writing formal regulations to expand the scope of their analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act.

No timetable was given for when a proposed rule would be published in the Federal Register for public review and comment.

The corps reviews and issues Clean Water Act "dredge-and-fill" permits for mining operations, but also must review the impacts of those permits under NEPA.

In previous litigation, the corps has taken the position that its NEPA analysis is fairly limited. Agency officials argued they had to consider only stream segments that were buried, and not other portions of valleys that were filled.

But corps officials said Friday their rulemaking would expand the analysis to "include all effects of proposed surface coal mining 'valley fills' on downstream aquatic resources" to ensure future mining operations comply with federal law.

The rulemaking is part of a multiagency effort by the Obama administration to take "unprecedented steps" to reduce the environmental impacts of surface coal mining in Appalachia.

"Today's announcement is a major step in the direction of fulfilling this commitment," said corps chief Jo-Ellen Darcy.

Three years ago, U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers, in Huntington, ruled that the corps was wrong not to consider broader impacts of fills.

"The terrestrial and other upland effects of the valley fills are important environmental consequences of the corps' permit action which the corps has failed to consider," Chambers wrote. "The corps must gather information and assess all environmental impacts caused by the fill."

That ruling was later overturned by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

On Thursday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had announced new guidance aimed at limiting the downstream water pollution from valley fills.

Environmental groups have praised the Obama administration's action, but coal industry officials say the new restrictions are not justified and will cost the region jobs.

EPA has cited a growing scientific consensus that mountaintop removal is destroying forests, damaging water quality and threatening public health in coalfield communities.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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