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Activists dismayed by Manchin's plan to curb EPA

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin said today his first piece of federal legislation will seek to rein in the Environmental Protection Agency and prevent retroactive permit vetoes like the one issued against a mountaintop removal coal mine in southern West Virginia.

Last week, the EPA vetoed a federal Clean Water Act permit issued long ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for Arch Coal's proposed Spruce No. 1 mine in Logan County. The agency ruled that destructive and unsustainable mining practices at what could have been the state's largest mountaintop removal operation would cause irreparable environmental damage and threaten the health of communities around the nearly 2,300-acre site.

Environmental activists who have fought mountaintop removal for years praised the decision as vindication of their battle. They said today that Manchin should be putting people harmed by air and water pollution ahead of corporate profits.

"His first piece of federal legislation should be to call for an immediate moratorium on all mountaintop removal operations in West Virginia in the interest of public health,'' said Bo Webb, of Coal River Mountain Watch. "He needs to stop supporting a mining activity that is killing the citizens he was elected to protect.''

Mountaintop removal is a highly efficient but particularly destructive form of strip mining that blasts apart mountain ridge tops to expose multiple coal seams. The resulting rock and debris is dumped in streams, creating so-called valley fills.

St. Louis-based Arch was not the only one outraged by EPA's action. It brought swift condemnation and harsh words from across the mining industry, as well as from Manchin, who was governor, and other politicians who have long supported it.

Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has scheduled a rally at the Capitol in Charleston for this afternoon to remind the EPA of coal's importance to the nation, and activists on both sides are expected to attend.

Manchin, who will also be at the rally, said the EPA's veto of a permit that had been subjected to a rigorous, 10-year review has broad implications beyond coal mining and other energy industries. The ability to revoke such permits also threatens the agriculture, home-building and transportation sectors, he said.

The Spruce permit was approved after a review that included a multimillion-dollar environmental impact statement, a court challenge and assessments by the state Department of Environmental Protection, the corps and the EPA itself, Manchin said.

"In other words, the EPA turned back the clock on the permit, rewrote the rules to change a previous decision it did not agree with and unilaterally broke the government's promise that jobs could be created and this mine could proceed,'' he wrote in a letter to fellow senators, urging them to join him in sponsoring the bill.

"Although the EPA claims no other permits are currently being considered for retroactive veto, the potential negative effects of this decision are staggering,'' he said, warning that any company that now has a Section 404 permit is facing "regulatory limbo and potentially the same after-the-fact reversal.''

As Arch envisioned it, the Spruce mine would have buried seven miles of streams, and EPA had previously ruled that would likely harm downstream water quality. Arch has planned to invest $250 million in the project, creating 250 jobs, but the mine has been delayed by lawsuits since it was permitted in 2007.

Mining already under way in a small portion of the Spruce site won't be affected by the EPA ruling, but it prohibits new, large-scale operations in other areas.

The EPA said this is only the 13th time since 1972 that it has used its Clean Water Act veto authority, and the first time it's acted on a previously permitted mine. The agency said last week it reserves that power "for only unacceptable cases'' and used it in 1978 to veto a previously permitted landfill in Miami.

Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition said Manchin is "operating in D.C. like he was here in West Virginia, acting on behalf of his campaign contributors.''

The EPA, she said, began in response to big polluters who had been given free rein, "so much so that the Cuyahoga River was on fire and people where dying at Love Canal.''

Unchecked, Stockman said, "they will leave us toxic water, ruined lives and no future.''

 


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