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Report outlines EPA permit review delays

Read the report: http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration's crackdown on mountaintop removal has delayed 138 permit reviews beyond the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's average processing time, according to a new EPA Inspector General review.

IG investigators examined 185 applications for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers "dredge-and-fill" Clean Water Act permits and found that about a third have been issued, a third have been withdrawn by mine operators and another third remain pending.

Of the permits that have been issued, about 45 percent were approved within 144 days, the average review time EPA provided to IG investigators for permits for coal-mining and other activities. Another dozen permits were issued within a year, the IG report said.

But, more than half of the 66 pending applications have been under review for more than two years, according to the report released last week.

IG investigators found permit reviews are becoming more complicated because of new scientific evidence about mining's negative impacts, and that reviews are being delayed when companies don't provide requested information, when EPA headquarters becomes directly involved and because of the corps' elimination of a streamlined permitting process that had been thrown out by a federal judge.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, requested the IG report in his role as ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Workers Committee.

"Instead of spending more and more taxpayer dollars to wage this war on affordable energy, the Obama EPA should be processing and approving these permits to spur job creation, especially in areas such as Appalachia that have significant employment needs," Inhofe said in a statement.

In recent weeks, congressional allies of the coal industry have intensified their attacks on the administration's policies regarding strip-mining permits, with multiple hearings in the House that focused on water protection efforts of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining.

But across Appalachia, coal industry employment is at a 14-year high, according to the latest Labor Department data. Regionally, the 59,059 jobs reported were the most since 1997, according to the MSHA data. In West Virginia, coal employment reached its highest level since 1992, with 23,353 jobs, the data shows.

Since taking office, the Obama administration has sought to reduce the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal, and has expressed serious concerns about the growing body of science linking the practice to a variety of adverse health effects for nearby residents. However, President Obama himself blocked the EPA from implementing tougher new smog standards that would have reduced pollution from coal-fired power plants, and advocates for action on global warming have criticized Obama for doing little on that issue.

In a related move on Monday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced he was delaying a report on his proposed merger of OSM with the Bureau of Land Management from Dec. 1 to Feb. 15. A prepared statement said the move was aimed at allowing more input from interested parties.

Coal industry officials, state regulators and lawmakers from coal-producing states have voiced opposition to the proposed merger.

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


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