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Corps suspends streamlined mining permits

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration said Thursday it is doing away with -- at least for now -- a streamlined permitting process that made it easier for coal operators to obtain permits to bury hundreds of miles of Appalachian streams.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials announced the move a year after they proposed eliminating the use of a "general" or "nationwide" permit for surface coal-mining operations in West Virginia and five other states in the region.

Environmental groups praised the decision as long overdue, while the mining industry complained it will "add further uncertainty" to the permitting process, threatening coal production and jobs.

The corps decision concerning what it calls Nationwide Permit 21, or NWP 21, comes after an October public hearing in Charleston at which hundreds of coal miners who opposed doing away with streamlined permits shouted down anyone who tried to speak in favor of the action.

Corps officials said in a decision document that it received 16,500 comments in favor of ending the streamlined permit process and 6,500 written comments against doing so.

"Using nationwide permits to rubber stamp the destruction of streams across hundreds of miles of Appalachia is an abomination," said Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for the group Earthjustice.

Hal Quinn, CEO of the National Mining Association, said in a statement, "the hardworking people of Appalachia have shown their support for NWP 21 and other policies that have provided greater economic certainty for their families and their communities. We are disappointed they have been let down."

Among other things, mining company officials in Appalachia have objected that the corps decision applies only in that region. But corps officials noted Thursday that the streamlined permit is used almost exclusively in Appalachia, accounting for 80 percent of the permit approvals since 1997.

Under the Clean Water Act, these permits are supposed to be used only to authorize "minor activities that are usually not controversial" and that would have only "minimal cumulative adverse effects on the environment."

Using this streamlined process, the corps issues a permit with a standards set of environmental guidelines. Mining operators are then authorized to bury streams if the submit a general plan to follow those guidelines. There is far less regulatory scrutiny, or public notice and comment, than if companies go through the more rigorous individual permit process.

For years, the corps approved valley fills -- burying hundreds of miles of streams with waste rock and dirt from mountaintop removal mines -- with the streamlined process.

Industry officials defend mountaintop removal as highly efficient and say it provides high-paying jobs in a depressed region of the coalfields. But scientific journals report a growing consensus that the practice does immense damage to forests and water quality across the Appalachian region.

U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin has twice blocked the corps from using streamlined permits for strip mines in Southern West Virginia. One of his decisions was overturned on appeal and another is being challenged by the mining industry.

Meg Gaffney-Smith, chief of the corps' regulatory program, told reporters Thursday that Goodwin's ruling played no role in the agency's decision to abandon the streamlined process. Gaffney-Smith also refused to comment on why the corps had joined the industry in filing a notice that it planned to appeal the judge's decision.

And the corps did not rule out trying to bring back the streamlined permit process, calling Thursday's announcement "an interim measure" that would remain in effect until the corps "takes further action" on the matter.

In its decision document, the corps said agency officials have "concerns that continued use of this permit in the Appalachian region of these six states may result in more than minimal individual and cumulative adverse effects to aquatic resources.

"Activities resulting in more than minimal individual and cumulative impacts to the aquatic environment cannot be authorized by NWPs or other general permits," the corps said.

Corps officials said that using individual permits instead would give agency officials more detailed information on which to base their decisions, and would give more opportunity for the public to comment on proposed permits before mining is allowed.

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


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