EPA also noted, "possible human health impacts from coal-mining activities have also been documented, including peer-reviewed public health literature that has preliminarily identified associations between increases in surface coal mining activities and increasing rates of cancer, birth defects, and other health problems in Appalachian communities."
The final guidance comes more than a year after EPA in April 2010 issued a draft version that it said would be implemented immediately, prior to a lengthy public comment period that eventually drew more than 60,000 responses. Officials from the White House Office of Management and Budget gave the guidance final approval on Wednesday, after a three-month review demanded by Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va. Last week, the House approved Rahall-authored legislation to strip EPA of its authority to overrule state water quality limits and permits it believes are too weak.
Coal industry officials and coalfield political leaders, including then-Gov. Joe Manchin, filed suit over the EPA proposal, alleging EPA had essentially issued new mining regulations without going through required rulemaking procedures.
Environmental and citizen groups generally welcomed Thursday's announcement, though some said that the Obama administration had not gone far enough. Industry groups blasted EPA.
"Despite the administration's pledges to focus on jobs creation, today's final guidance is a jobs destroyer and does nothing to cure EPA's unlawful permit moratorium on coal mining in Appalachia," Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, said in a statement.
The mining association and its allies have already won an initial legal skirmish. A federal judge ruled in January that EPA might have wrongly ignored rulemaking requirements such as the ability for the public to comment before the draft guidance was implemented. Hearings on the matter are not scheduled to take place until late October, but EPA is due to file a key legal brief Friday.
As it has in the past, EPA emphasized in Thursday's announcement that the new water quality guidance "is not a rule and is not binding legally or in practice."
Such language drew criticism from the group Appalachian Voices, which said its review of the final guidance shows it gives EPA and state regulators far more leeway to approve mining operations, despite their potential impacts.
"We'd certainly rather have this guidance than not have it," said Matt Wasson, director of programs for Appalachian Voices. "But I'm concerned that the Obama administration is backsliding on its commitment to protect the health of people impacted by mountaintop removal coal mining."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.