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Mining study released today

More than 700 miles of Appalachian streams were buried by coal-mining valley fills between 1985 and 2001, according to a draft federal government study being released today.

Another 475 miles of streams were "directly impacted" by coal removal areas, valley fills, roads and ponds, according to the study.

Federal regulators are scheduled to release the draft Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, at noon today. Congressional briefings were held this morning, and a media teleconference is scheduled for this afternoon.

The Charleston Gazette has obtained a copy of the study's executive summary and is posting that portion of the document on its Internet site. Download the document by clicking on the icon to the right.

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In a report to be released today, the Bush administration will propose plans to streamline mountaintop removal coal mining permits.

Federal regulators said Wednesday that they would make public results of the mountaintop removal study, which has taken more than four years.

Administration officials scheduled briefings this morning for congressional staff, and planned an afternoon conference call with reporters.

As early as noon, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency planned to post the 5,000-page study on the Internet. EPA was also scheduled to mail out hundreds of CD versions of the study. An agency official said that packages with paper copies of the study and related documents weighed more than 30 pounds.

?Obviously, there are a lot of people who have been waiting for this to be released,? one official said this week.

The study is called an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS. The version being released today is a draft. Regulators will accept public comments and release a final version later this year.

Under a legal settlement, the study was required to be published by December 2000, but has been repeatedly delayed.

EPA, the federal Office of Surface Mining and other agencies promised in December 1998 to perform the study to resolve part of a lawsuit that alleged mountaintop removal permits violated mining and clean water laws.

West Virginia political leaders, including Gov. Bob Wise, succeeded in early 2001 in blocking the formal release of preliminary drafts of the study.

But thousands of pages of scientific studies were released under public records laws. In May 2002, The Charleston Gazette published a draft of the report on its Web site at http://wvgazette.

com/eis.

Overall, the scientific reviews found that mountaintop removal is destroying Appalachian streams, forests and wildlife. The draft documents also found that the economic impact of stricter regulations would be much less than the coal industry has predicted.

When they launched the study, federal officials said its primary purpose was to ?consider potential revisions to relevant regulations, policies and guidance that would minimize the potential for adverse individual and cumulative impacts of mining operations.?

But in the last two years, the focus has moved to what was a secondary goal: Coordinating and streamlining the way various agencies review the different permits companies must obtain for mountaintop removal operations.

In October 2001, Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles, a former mining lobbyist, proposed to refocus the study on ?centralizing and streamlining coal mine permitting.?

?We must ensure that the EIS lay the groundwork for coordinating our respective regulatory jurisdiction in the most efficient manner,? Griles wrote in a letter to other agencies. ?At a minimum, this would require that the EIS focus on centralizing and streamlining coal mine permitting, and minimizing or mitigating environmental impacts.?

In an interview last month, OSM Director Jeff Jarrett said that recent work has narrowed to sorting out which agency handles what part of the mountaintop removal permitting review.

?The primary purpose of the EIS was to look at how agencies should work together to minimize environmental impacts resulting from mountaintop mining,? Jarrett said. ?The emphasis really is on how government agencies should be working together ? who should have what responsibility.?

Behind-the-scenes work on the study has pitted EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service against OSM and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Generally, EPA and the service has been more critical of mountaintop removal and pushed for tougher restrictions. OSM and the corps favored moves to streamline permitting.

For example, EPA had wanted to keep a requirement for more detailed permit reviews of mines that proposed valley fills in watersheds that drain more than 250 acres.

Federal regulators enacted the requirement as part of a series of ?interim steps? to more closely monitor mining until the study was completed.

Corps officials opposed keeping the 250-acre threshold, and sources said Wednesday that the study would indicate the corps won that fight.

?Sadly, the Department of Interior has chosen to ignore the scientific studies on mountaintop removal and has instead drawn conclusions dictated by the Bush political agenda,? said Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. ?Considering what we know about the administration?s dismal record on the environment, this comes as no surprise.?

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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