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Mining limit studies too costly, feds say

Federal regulators abandoned plans for more detailed studies of ways to limit mountaintop removal because the work would have cost too much, according to a new government report.

The more detailed studies would have taken five to 10 years and cost $10 million, the report said.

That amounts to nearly twice what the government has already spent on its broad mountaintop removal study.

Bush administration officials concluded such costs were "exorbitant" and "chose not to continue these expensive studies," according the government report.

Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies issued the final version of their landmark report on mountaintop removal.

With the document's release, federal regulators say that they will move forward with plans to streamline the process of reviewing applications for new mountaintop removal mines.

Currently, companies submit separate permit applications to several state and federal agencies for the various permits needed for new mining operations. Under the new plan, companies would file a single application that all agencies would review.

"Concurrent, rather than consecutive processes is going to lead to not only more efficient reviews, but also better decisions," said Russ Hunter, a state Department of Environmental Protection lawyer who worked on the report.

Absent from the final report, though, is any detailed examination of various proposals to restrict the size of mining valley fills.

In preliminary drafts of the study, government officials came up with four alternatives to restrict the size of valley fills. Those alternatives, the agencies said in several versions of their report, should be at the heart of any plan to improve regulation of mountaintop removal in Appalachia.

During a conference call with reporters, U.S. Office of Surface Mining spokesman Mike Robinson said that the issue is more complicated than simply setting a cap on valley fill size.

"We couldn't find sufficient data to warrant a bright line like that," Robinson said. "You might have a permit with a bunch of little fills that could be consolidated into one large fill in a degraded watershed that would be preferable to being on the other side of the hill where you have more pristine streams."

Federal officials provided their cost estimate for the study on valley fill limits in response to a public comment that said such analysis was "essential" to the overall mountaintop removal report.

The report, 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.

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, 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."

The final mountaintop removal study, along with the May 2003 draft report, is available online at http://www.epa.gov/region3/mtntop/.

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


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