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The Charleston Gazette (West Virginia)

Obama Pressed for Mountaintop Removal Ban

Ken Ward Jr.

Singer-Actress Ashley Judd speaks during a rally in Frankfort, Ky. on Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2009 calling for an end to mountaintop coal mining. (AP Photo/Roger Alford)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Environmental groups and coalfield residents are pushing the Obama administration this week to take action to block new mountaintop removal mining permits in Appalachia.

Leaders of several citizens groups met with administration officials Monday and Tuesday in Washington to ask for a moratorium on new permits until federal regulators can come up with a plan to ban mountaintop removal permanently.

The push comes a month after a federal appeals court struck down the latest in a series of court rulings aimed at tougher oversight of mountaintop removal permitting by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Environmentalists say more than 100 permits are pending at the corps office in Huntington that would bury more than 200 miles of streams in Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky.

"Our members feel a sense of urgency like never before," said Jim Foster, a Van resident and member of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. "Unless the Obama administration steps in to protect coalfield communities and retrain coal workers, the coal industry is going to take all it can, leaving us poisoned water, abandoned towns and a toxic future."

Various environmental group lawyers, activists and citizens met in Washington with top officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and the federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement.

Specifically, the mining opponents want EPA to sue its Clean Water Act authority to step in and block the corps from issuing the new permits, and they want the CEQ to back up such a move by EPA.

In mountaintop removal, coal operators use explosives to blow up mountaintops and uncover valuable, low-sulfur coal reserves. Leftover rock and dirt - the stuff that used to be the mountains - is dumped into nearby hollows, burying streams.

Between 1985 and 2001, mine operators buried 724 miles of Appalachian streams, according to a federal government study published in 2003. A more recent study found that permits issued between October 2001 and June 2005 would likely bury another 357 miles of the region's waterways.

Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

OVEC sent a two-page letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson on Monday, congratulating her on her appointment and asking Jackson to "take a stand to protect our communities, our national heritage and our climate from mountaintop removal coal mining." The letter notes that the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last month "would permit mining companies to conduct mountaintop removal coal mining without acting to minimize stream destruction or conducting adequate environmental reviews."

"In the wake of this decision, we are writing to ask that the Environmental Protection Agency prevent additional devastation by freezing the permitting of any new mines," wrote Janet Keating, OVEC's director. "We also request that the EPA provide long-term protection for the waterways and communities of this region by initiating a rulemaking process to prevent the use of mining waste as fill material."

Adora Andy, press secretary for Jackson, could not immediately say what steps EPA plans to take on mountaintop removal issues.

"We're working with other government agencies about next steps right now," Andy said.

Christine Glunz, spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said officials there are reviewing the Bush administration's industry-backed changes to the stream "buffer zone" rule and the 4th Circuit decision.

"The Council on Environmental Quality works closely with all of the federal agencies on environmental policies and we have been meeting with the agencies and other interested stakeholders to discuss these issues," Glunz said. "We are in an information gathering stage at this point asking for information about the environmental impacts of these decisions."

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