If the state doesn't toughen its permit requirements, all new strip- mine proposals might be subjected to rigorous environmental impact studies, the region's top federal regulator says.
Such a requirement could delay permits for months - or even years, but would provide regulators and citizens better answers to questions about the environmental effects of mountaintop removal mining.
W. Michael McCabe, regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said the studies would be required by law if EPA has to take over issuance of certain individual strip-mine permits.
"The nature of the industry has changed, and there needs to be a thorough environmental assessment," McCabe said in an interview Friday.
At mountaintop removal mines, huge shovels and dozers shave off entire tops of mountains to reach valuable coal seams underneath. Much of the rock and earth that's removed is dumped into streams, in waste piles called valley fills.
In the last few years, mountaintop removal has become the dominant form of coal mining in Southern West Virginia. Two-thirds of the acreage approved for strip mining last year was for mountaintop removal.
EPA officials and environmentalists have battled with the Underwood administration over a new law, signed by the governor, which makes it easier for coal companies to dump mine waste in valley fills. The bill doubles the size of drainage areas that can be used for valley fills before coal companies must compensate the state for the loss of streams buried by the fills.
Last week, EPA temporarily stopped the state from issuing a permit for an A.T. Massey Coal Co. mountaintop removal mine in Boone County.
EPA officials cited concerns about seven valley fills included in the permit, and about the fact that the new law would exempt the mine from compensating the state at all for the stream loss.
In a letter to the state, EPA also said that the valley fills and associated in-stream sediment ponds would violate the "anti-degradation policy" of West Virginia's water-quality standards.
Those rules require that existing water uses and level of water quality necessary to protect the existing uses be maintained and protected. They also say that, at a minimum, all waters of the state must be protected for maintenance of fish and other aquatic life.
In response to a Gazette Freedom of Information Act request in April, EPA environmental engineer Dan Sweeney wrote that, "Since valley fills cover stream beds and smother any aquatic life present in the stream beds, such filling would be an apparent violation of the anti-degradation policy."
On Friday, EPA issued a general objection - a procedural prelude to halting the permit - for a more- than-3,000-acre Arch Coal Co. mountaintop removal mine.