New York Times:
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said Thursday that it would toughen standards for mountaintop-removal coal mining but would not end the practice as some environmental groups had hoped.
Officials from four agencies said they had agreed to order a more rigorous legal and environmental review of pending and future applications for mountaintop mining in Appalachia. The technique involves blasting the tops off mountains and dumping the rubble into valleys and streams. The practice has buried hundreds of miles of streams and has polluted water throughout the region.
The officials, representing the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers, did not make clear whether the new process would result in the granting of more mining permits or fewer. Earlier this year the administration imposed a virtual moratorium on mountaintop mining pending this review, leaving the status of 110 permits in limbo.
In the interim, however, the administration has granted 42 such permits while denying 6. It appears that those 42 projects will now move forward.
Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House environmental council, said strict safeguards in the new agreement made good on President Obama’s pledge to limit the damage from mountaintop-removal mining while providing coal for the nation’s utilities.
“We are committed to powering our country while protecting health and welfare in the Appalachian region, securing access to clean streams and safe drinking water, and honoring our clean-water laws,” Ms. Sutley said.
Mountaintop mining has led to many protests and hundreds of lawsuits. The coal industry contends that it is the safest and most efficient way to remove coal that is near the surface and that the landscape and communities are left relatively unharmed. Residents and environmental advocates say the practice destroys streams and valleys, dislocates communities and poisons drinking water.
The Bush administration tried to fast-track permits for such operations but left office without rewriting the laws. The Obama administration is now trying to give mine operators, state officials and communities some certainty on when and where mountaintop mining will be permitted.
In a statement, the National Mining Association said the announcement failed to clarify what impact the new procedures would have on granting permits.
“We remain concerned that an ambiguous process will continue to hold up coal production and jeopardize jobs not only in six states but possibly throughout the nation’s coal fields,” the statement said. (Mountaintop mining is practiced in Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.)
State officials were generally positive about the policy, saying it would make decisions on permits faster and more predictable.
Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia, a Democrat, said he supported the new approach, adding: “As we continue to meet the challenges of the global financial downturn, we have an obligation to permit the recovery of traditional energy sources that fuel our economy. However, we also have a responsibility to discourage the use of mining methods that exploit our mountains and valleys.”
But Joan Mulhern, legislative counsel of Earthjustice, an environmental group that opposes mountaintop mining, said her group could not endorse the new policy.
“It’s not clear yet whether this policy will result in more or fewer permits,” Ms. Mulhern said. “Until they can clearly tell us their policy is to stop the destruction of mountains and streams in Appalachia, we cannot support them.”