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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Despite strong pressure from the coal industry and its political allies, the Obama administration on Thursday finalized new guidance aimed at reducing the environmental and public health impacts of mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson has said that "no or very few valley fills" would be approved under new guidance that EPA regional offices will now impose on state regulators for permits under the federal Clean Water Act.
EPA officials said the guidelines -- being challenged in court and under fire from Congress -- are needed because of a growing body of science that details devastating water quality impacts downstream of large-scale surface mines.
"The science holds up the actions they are taking 100 percent," said Margaret Palmer, a University of Maryland biologist who has been studying mountaintop removal's effects on streams and aquatic life. "It is blatant that the biodiversity is just decimated when you have these valley fills above streams."
The new EPA guidance calls for tougher permit reviews, including more detailed studies of whether mining impacts can be avoided or reduced, new testing of potential toxic impacts of mining discharges, and tough limits on the increases in electrical conductivity, a crucial measure of water quality.
EPA said in a statement that the guidance would not block all mining permits, and cited three examples over the last two years when agency officials worked out acceptable deals with coal operators to approve new mining projects.
"Under this guidance, EPA will continue to work with other federal agencies, state, local communities, and companies to design mining operations that adequately protect our nation's waters and people's health," said Nancy Stoner, EPA's acting assistant administrator for water. "We have a responsibility under the law to protect water quality and this guidance allows EPA to work with companies to meet that goal, based on the best science."
In the 61-page guidance memo, EPA said that since 1992, more than 1,200 miles of Appalachian streams have been filled by Appalachian coal mining operations. EPA cited an ongoing rate of about 120 miles of streams per year being impacted.
"Further, while precise estimates are limited, the estimated scale of deforestation from existing Appalachian surface mining operations is greater in size than the state of Delaware, or 5,700 square kilometers, predicted to be affected by 2012," the EPA guidance memo said. "The full cumulative effects of surface coal mining operations at this scope and scale are still largely unknown."