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New mining permits gain speed

Federal regulators Friday released the final version of a landmark study of mountaintop removal, paving the way for the Bush administration's plan to streamline the review of new coal-mining permits.

The study approves the original proposal to combine the review for mining permits required by various state and federal agencies into a single, joint evaluation.

Officials from four federal agencies that produced the study said the plan was aimed at reducing environmental impacts, but also would speed the review of permit applications.

"It's a quid pro quo," said Greg Peck, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official who worked on the study. "We are committed to making the process work more quickly, but also signaling to the industry that there are requirements that are going to have to be met."

State and federal officials did not provide specific examples of how the joint permit reviews would limit environmental damage.

"One would have to look at each permit to see what site-specific measures have been employed," said Russ Hunter, a Department of Environmental Protection lawyer who worked on the mining study.

Federal and state officials did not explain exactly how - or when - mining permit applications would be reviewed through the new, coordinated process.

"It's up to all of the agencies involved in all of the states to select that," said Mike Robinson, a spokesman for the U.S. Office of Surface Mining.

Kathy Trott, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the new federal report provides a "framework that encourages more coordinated procedures."

Coal industry officials welcomed the final study's release, while environmentalists harshly criticized the lack of any concrete rule changes to more strictly police large-scale strip mining.

"We think this will be helpful both for people filing permits, knowing what they need to file, and for the public, to review permits and get a more complete picture rather than something piecemeal," said Carol Raulston, spokesman for the National Mining Association.

Jim Hecker, a lawyer with the Washington, D.C., group Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, called the final study "a pure political and ideological statement, not a scientific document."

"It's hard to believe they put this out with a straight face," Hecker said.

The study, called an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, was nearly seven years in the making - and published five years after a legal deadline for its completion. The study cost the government about $5.5 million, said EPA spokeswoman Bonnie Smith.

The EPA and other agencies promised the study in December 1998 to settle parts of a federal court lawsuit that sought to curtail mountaintop removal.

When it formally kicked off the project in February 1999, the EPA said the goal was "to consider developing agency policies ... to minimize, to the maximum extent practicable the adverse environmental effects" of mountaintop removal.

By October 2001, then-Deputy Interior Secretary Steven J. Griles, a former mining industry lobbyist, had ordered the project refocused toward "centralizing and streamlining coal mine permitting."

In mountaintop removal, coal operators blast off entire hilltops to uncover valuable, low-sulfur coal reserves. Leftover rock and dirt is shoved into nearby valleys, burying streams.

The draft study, published in May 2003, confirmed that mountaintop removal is destroying forests and streams in West Virginia and other coal states in the region.

Among other things, the draft reported that coal operators had buried more than 720 miles of Appalachian streams between 1985 and 2001.

Without additional restrictions, the draft projected, a total of 2,200 square miles of Appalachian forests - an area twice the size of Kanawha County - would be eliminated.

Over the past four years, two federal court rulings to limit mountaintop removal have been overturned by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. The appeal of a third such ruling is pending now at the 4th Circuit, and a similar case is making its way through federal court in Kentucky.

In the final study issued Friday morning, federal officials offered little new information about mountaintop removal.

More than 400 pages of the 507-page document were copies of previously published scientific articles related to mountaintop removal. Officials included a five-page "Errata" that corrects typographical errors and makes minor changes in the draft.

In a response to public comments on the draft, federal officials did offer some explanation for not taking concrete actions to limit mountaintop removal. They said, "the [draft] studies did not conclude that impacts documented below [mountaintop removal] operations caused or contributed to significant degradation of waters of the U.S."

"This is just a rehash of what the federal agencies have been doing for the last five years, which is ignoring the clear scientific evidence of irreparable harm to West Virginia's environment," said Joe Lovett, director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment.

"After discovering that West Virginia's environment is being seriously harmed by these huge mountaintop removal operations, they stopped doing research and made getting permits easier," Lovett said.

The final mountaintop removal study, along with the May 2003 draft report, is available online at www.epa.gov/re gion3/mtntop/.

For previous coverage of the mountaintop removal issue, visit http:// wvgazette.com/mining.

The mountaintop removal study

Here is a timeline of events surrounding the federal government's landmark study of mountaintop removal coal mining:

s December 1998 - In a legal settlement with citizen groups, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agrees to lead a detailed study of mountaintop removal's impacts in an effort to come up with tougher regulation of the coal industry. The study was to be completed within two years.

s October 2000 - EPA backs off the release of a draft of its study when then-Gov. Bob Wise and legislative leaders complained that it did not contain enough information about mining's economic impacts on West Virginia.

s May 2001 - In response to a public records request, EPA releases thousands of pages concerning its review of mountaintop removal. Among other things, the records showed that Appalachian hills and streams might not recover from mountaintop removal's damaging effects for hundreds of years. The documents showed that regulators could do much more to limit these impacts, but had already dropped the idea of concrete limits on the size of mining operations and valley fills.

s October 2001 - Deputy Interior Secretary Steven J. Griles, a former mining industry lobbyist, orders federal agencies to change the course of the mountaintop removal study. Instead of looking for potential new regulations to limit environmental impacts, Griles says that the study will now focus on "centralizing and streamlining" the review of new mining permits.

s May 2002 - In response to another public records request, EPA releases a copy of its early draft of the mountaintop removal study. Among other things, the draft concluded that, without tougher regulation and better reclamation, future mountaintop removal would wide out nearly 230,000 acres of ecologically diverse hills and hollows.

s September 2002 - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service complains to other agencies that the study wrongly avoids any detailed analysis of tougher regulations to limit mountaintop removal. Agency officials say that the study's proposed actions offer "only meager environmental benefits."

s January 2003 - Matthew Crum, who was then West Virginia's top strip mine regulator, wrote to EPA to complain that current drafts of the study give state agencies little guidance on how to limit mountaintop removal's impacts or improve permit reviews.

s May 2003 - EPA and other agencies release their first official draft of the study. The draft reports that, in the next 10 years, another 1,000 miles of streams could be damaged by mining.

s Oct. 28, 2005 - Federal agencies and West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection release final version of the EIS - nearly five years behind schedule.


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