CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration said Thursday it is doing away with -- at least for now -- a streamlined permitting process that made it easier for coal operators to obtain permits to bury hundreds of miles of Appalachian streams.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials announced the move a year after they proposed eliminating the use of a "general" or "nationwide" permit for surface coal-mining operations in West Virginia and five other states in the region.
Environmental groups praised the decision as long overdue, while the mining industry complained it will "add further uncertainty" to the permitting process, threatening coal production and jobs.
The corps decision concerning what it calls Nationwide Permit 21, or NWP 21, comes after an October public hearing in Charleston at which hundreds of coal miners who opposed doing away with streamlined permits shouted down anyone who tried to speak in favor of the action.
Corps officials said in a decision document that it received 16,500 comments in favor of ending the streamlined permit process and 6,500 written comments against doing so.
"Using nationwide permits to rubber stamp the destruction of streams across hundreds of miles of Appalachia is an abomination," said Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for the group Earthjustice.
Hal Quinn, CEO of the National Mining Association, said in a statement, "the hardworking people of Appalachia have shown their support for NWP 21 and other policies that have provided greater economic certainty for their families and their communities. We are disappointed they have been let down."
Among other things, mining company officials in Appalachia have objected that the corps decision applies only in that region. But corps officials noted Thursday that the streamlined permit is used almost exclusively in Appalachia, accounting for 80 percent of the permit approvals since 1997.
Under the Clean Water Act, these permits are supposed to be used only to authorize "minor activities that are usually not controversial" and that would have only "minimal cumulative adverse effects on the environment."