Federal regulators have started the process of putting new mountaintop removal mining permits through additional scrutiny required by a court settlement.
On Friday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a public notice for a Clean Water Act permit for a mine Appalachian Mining Inc. wants to operate near Fourmile Fork in Fayette County.
Under a court settlement, the corps will have to review the proposal as an individual "dredge and fill" permit - not as part of a much less rigorous nationwide permit used to authorize strip mines for years.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said the individual permits will require the corps to conduct extensive "environmental assessments," or EAs, which study possible impacts of mines before they are approved.
"This will be the first time we go through this process," said Mike Gheen, chief of the regulatory branch of the corps office in Huntington.
Coal operators and environmentalists are watching the situation closely.
Industry officials fear the individual permits could take up to two years to process, a delay they say would cripple coal mining in the region. Environmentalists worry the corps won't take the new permitting method seriously enough, leading to mines being approved with the same lack of oversight as occurred under the old process.
"They can do an EA and blow things off, or it can be a full-fledged, good study," said Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.
The conservancy and a group of coalfield residents filed a lawsuit last year to try to curb mountaintop removal mining.
To settle part of the suit, federal regulators agreed to a two-year environmental study aimed at coming up with new rules on mountaintop removal. In the meantime, most mountaintop removal permits must receive the individual corps permits, according to the settlement.
But regulators are offering little information about how the individual permits will be processed, or how environmental assessments for those permits will be conducted.
The corps' public notice on the Appalachian Mining permit offers little explanation. The four-page notice does not say how many acres of land will be impacted by the mine.
Division of Environmental Protection records show the mine would strip about 730 acres near Fourmile Fork, a tributary of Smithers Creek in western Fayette County.