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Citizens seek to join suit over EPA mining rules

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Sierra Club and a coalition of regional citizen groups are seeking to intervene in a coal industry lawsuit over the Obama administration's crackdown on mountaintop removal coal mining.

Lawyers for the groups filed a motion to intervene in the suit brought by the National Mining Association in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Mining industry lawyers are seeking to block more detailed permit reviews and tougher water quality guidance issued earlier this year by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In a news release, the citizen groups said that they filed their motion because "the mining industry should not be able to prevent government agencies from doing their jobs: To follow the Clean Water Act, consider the key scientific information discussed in the guidance, and protect America's water from destruction."

"For 40 years the Clean Water Act has protected Americans from unacceptable pollution like the mining waste that destroys our essential mountain streams," said Debbie Jarrell, assistant director of Coal River Mountain Watch. "But here in Appalachia, we're still waiting for real protection."

The other groups seeking to intervene are Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, and Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment.

While the coal industry favors mountaintop removal's efficiency, and local political leaders praise the jobs provided, there is a growing scientific consensus that the practice is causing widespread and irreversible damage to the region's forests, water quality and communities.

Shortly after taking office, the Obama administration announced it was taking "unprecedented steps" to reduce the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal.

EPA began much more rigorous reviews of valley fill permit applications being considered by the federal Army Corps of Engineers and threatened to exercise its Clean Water Act authority to block those permits if it believed the impacts were too great.

In its suit, the mining association alleges this process "adds significant additional time to the corps regulatory review" and is "dramatically altering timelines" for companies to receive new mining permits.

This April, EPA also announced a new guidance for its regional offices in reviewing water pollution permits for mining projects being considered for issuance by state agencies like West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection.

The new guidance calls for much tougher review, and perhaps rejection of permits, based on the potential to increase the electrical conductivity of streams, which is a stronger measure of many harmful pollutants from mining and has been linked to damage of aquatic life.

EPA made its guidance effective immediately on an interim basis, but is also conducting an eight-month public comment period and subjecting the scientific reports the guidance is based upon to peer review.

In its suit, the mining association said the guidance constitutes a rulemaking that should have gone through a public comment before it was put into effect.

On orders from Gov. Joe Manchin, the state Department of Environmental Protection last week filed a similar lawsuit against EPA and the Corps of Engineers.

"The National Mining Association's challenge is an attempt to avoid the law and derail strong science -- both of which will protect the people and communities of Appalachia," said Earthjustice attorney Jennifer Chavez, who is representing the citizen groups.

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


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