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Obama brings back streamlined coal mine permits

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Despite a promise to stop the practice, the Obama administration this week said it would resume allowing coal companies to obtain strip-mine permits through a streamlined process previously thrown out by a federal judge.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Wednesday reissued a collection of "general" permits, including one called "Nationwide Permit 21," or NWP 21, for surface coal mining.

Corps officials said they revised the permit so that valley fills generally can't be authorized through streamlined permits. They also limited the amount of stream that can be buried under such a permit to 300 linear feet.

However, the new NWP plan also allows local Corps of Engineers officials to waive the 300-foot limit if they conclude the mining proposal at issue will result in minimal impacts.

Environmental groups had urged the corps not to take such an approach, saying it would amount to "an unacceptable retreat" from the administration's previous suspension of NWP 21.

"We support the proposed ban on valley fills, but believe that the waivable stream limit provides insufficient protection for stream loss from mine-throughs and other stream disturbances," lawyers for the Sierra Club, Earthjustice and other groups said in comments on the corps' proposal.

In June 2009, the Obama administration had said it would do away with the streamlined permit process for strip-mining permits as part of its broader crackdown on mountaintop removal.

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

For years, the corps approved valley fills -- burying hundreds of miles of Appalachian streams -- with only streamlined permit reviews, rather than through more thorough "individual" permits.

Chief U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin has twice issued rulings that blocked the corps from using such permits for mountaintop removal, and the mining industry mostly moved to apply instead for individual permits.

During a public hearing in October 2009, though, a huge crowd of miners and coal industry officials turned out to demand continued use of NWP 21. They jeered and shouted down anyone who tried to speak in favor of the Obama mining crackdown.

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


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