Mine permit actions 'baloney'
State environmental protection Director Michael Miano on Thursday accused federal regulators of "typical bureaucratic baloney" for halting several huge mountaintop removal strip mine permits.
"I support study and discussion and environmental protection," Miano said at the annual West Virginia Conference on the Environment.
"But I am disturbed that we can get bogged down in red tape and negatively affect the ability of industry to operate in our state," he said.
"Effectively, the permitting of these large surface operations has come to a standstill. This is typical bureaucratic baloney."
In the last five months, EPA has halted - at least temporarily - three water pollution permits for large mountaintop removal mines in Boone, Logan and Nicholas counties.
Those three permits would allow Arch Coal Inc. and A.T. Massey to strip more than 6,533 acres of hills and hollows, according to state records.
One Arch Coal permit alone would allow the company to bury roughly 4 miles of streams along Pigeonroost Hollow near Blair, Logan County, with strip mine waste, according to EPA estimates.
There are 12 other mountaintop removal permits pending before DEP that have not reached the point in the review process where EPA would comment on them. Those 12 permits would allow companies to strip another 9,400 acres of land, according to DEP records.
Strip mines must receive mining permits under the federal Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act and water pollution permits under the federal Clean Water Act.
Under the law, EPA has the authority to block states from issuing water pollution permits that federal regulators believe will violate water quality rules.
W. Michael McCabe, regional director of EPA, has said his agency is blocking mountaintop removal permits because state regulators don't know what the environmental impacts of the mines might be.
Generally, mining pollution laws require regulators to understand the cumulative environmental effects of surface mines before those mines are permitted. If regulators don't understand the full effects, the law holds, they can't force coal operators to take steps to minimize those impacts.
Miano spoke out on Thursday after McCabe and other federal officials visited the state to view mountaintop removal operations from the air and to discuss the issue with state regulators.
Miano said the various agency officials met on Tuesday to "consolidate their position on mountaintop mining and to prepare a response to a lawsuit filed in federal court against DEP and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over that mining procedure."
"It was McCabe's first opportunity to fly over these operations to see first-hand on the ground the areas affected by the two permits," Miano said. "He also looked at a variety of sites that were mined over the past 20 years to see what kind of reclamation work was done there. I think he was favorably impressed."
In a news release detailing his conference speech, Miano said he is "convinced these permits are legally ready to be issued."
"I believe that the permits will be issued, but because of the legal concerns and the complexity of the authority issues at the federal level, it has taken much too long," Miano said.
McCabe, in a telephone interview, disagreed.
"What we're trying to do is ensure that the water quality standards are upheld," McCabe said. "That is our responsibility and I assume it's DEP's responsibility as well.
"Every time we ask the state or the coal companies a question about the impacts of these mining operations, we get an incomplete answer," McCabe said. "The information out there is very thin in terms of specific and cumulative impacts."
McCabe said he also sees no reason to engage in a war of words with Miano.
"Throughout this process, I have tried to focus on the law, and the fact that we do not have enough information about the environmental impacts of these massive mining operations," he said. "If we all focus on getting good information to help us follow the law and do our jobs, I think that is the best course for this conversation to take."