West Virginia environmental officials can no longer hand out mountaintop removal mining permits as freely as they have for years.
A legal agreement in a federal lawsuit, reached late Wednesday afternoon, places new limits on mining operations that strip mountains away to unearth coal from a dozen or more different seams.
Both environmentalists and federal officials called it a "landmark settlement."
W. Michael McCabe, a federal Environmental Protection Agency's regional director based in Philadelphia, said, "This agreement will change the way mountaintop mining is conducted in West Virginia and every other Appalachian state."
McCabe called it "a very significant step."
Cindy Rank, past president of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, said state Division of Environmental Protection enforcement has been "a travesty."
"Minimum federal standards have been routinely violated for years. The federal Office of Surface Mining, which is supposed to oversee and prevent these problems, has completely dropped the ball. It is time now for major reforms at DEP."
McCabe said, "We have agreed to have a unified federal policy that will coordinate mine permit activities with EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Office of Surface Mining and the West Virginia DEP.
"We will in fact streamline the permitting process. We will hold these mines to much higher environmental standards in the future," McCabe said.
In recent years, rock and soil removed by mountaintop removal have filled up, and destroyed, more than 1,000 miles of streams in Southern West Virginia alone.
Under the new agreement, federal agencies will:
Prepare a comprehensive environmental impact statement about the entire mountaintop removal process.
Immediately halt routine approval of all mountaintop removal permits.
Require complete environmental assessments for all mine permits larger than 250 acres. Many mountaintop removal permits are larger than 1,000 acres.
Norm Steenstra, executive director of the West Virginia Citizen Action Group, called state DEP enforcement "absolutely inept. There was a lack of desire to enforce the law. There was a complete failure to examine the social, economic and environmental costs of mountaintop removal mining."
Rank said, "The federal government agreed with us that business as usual poses unacceptable environmental risks and cannot continue."
McCabe, in a telephone interview, said, "Our policies were kind of fuzzy, to put it mildly. We have agreed to conduct a comprehensive environmental assessment over the next two years about the impact of mountaintop mining and valley fills....
"For new mines that will be permitted, there will be higher standards to make sure environmental impacts will be reduced and that environmental damage will be mitigated properly."