CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration has given its tentative approval to a new mountaintop removal permit, provided the Logan County operation makes changes federal regulators say are needed to protect downstream water quality.
Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency quietly signed off on federal Army Corps of Engineers issuance of a Clean Water Act permit for Arch Coal Inc. subsidiary Coal-Mac Inc.'s Pine Creek Surface Mine near Omar.
EPA officials praised the company for taking steps to reduce downstream water pollution, but said they also want the company to agree to build its valley fill waste piles one at a time.
Coal-Mac cut its stream impacts by 22 percent, agreed to haul waste rock and dirt for disposal on an adjacent mine site rather than in streams, and increased the deck of its valley fills in another move to reduce the length of waterways buried.
"Where practicable, the applicant has maximized the amount of spoil returned to the mine bench and minimized the amount of excess spoil that must be disposed of in streams," EPA regional environmental assessment director John Pomponio wrote in a June 21 letter to corps District Engineer Robert D. Peterson.
The permit involves a 760-acre mountaintop removal operation that was among the mining applications receiving additional scrutiny from the EPA under the Obama administration's effort to reduce impacts from Appalachian strip mining.
While the coal industry favors mountaintop removal's efficiency and local political leaders praise the jobs provided, there is a growing scientific consensus that the practice is causing widespread and irreversible damage to the region's forests, water quality and communities.
In one recent first-of-its kind study, for example, scientists from EPA and the University of Kentucky found that ditches mine operators build to channel runoff do not replicate the important ecological functions of headwater streams.