WASHINGTON - The Environmental Protection Agency put hundreds of mountaintop coal-mining permits on hold Tuesday, saying it wants to evaluate the projects' impact on streams and wetlands.
The decision, announced by EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, targets a controversial practice that allows coal mining companies to dump waste from mountaintop mining into streams and wetlands.
It could delay 150-250 permits being sought by companies wanting to begin blasting mountaintops to access coal.
Those permits are issued by the Army Corps of Engineers, an agency that has been criticized by environmental groups and has been sued for failing to thoroughly evaluate the environmental impact of mountaintop removal.
Under the Clean Water Act, companies cannot discharge rock, dirt and other debris into streams unless they can show that it will not cause permanent damage to waterways or the fish and other wildlife that live in it.
Last month, a three-judge appeals panel in Richmond, Va., overturned a lower court's ruling that would have required the Corps to conduct more extensive reviews. The appeals court decision cleared the way for a backlog of permits that had been delayed until the lawsuit was resolved.
The EPA's action on Tuesday leaves those permit requests in limbo a little longer.
"If the EPA didn't step in and do something now, all those permits would go forward," said Joe Lovett, executive director for the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment. "There are permits that will bury 200 miles of streams pending before the Corps."
Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, said further delays in the permits would cost the region high-paying jobs. "This is very troubling, not only for jobs in the region, but production of coal generally," said Raulston.
In a separate action, the EPA recommended denying two permits the Army Corps of Engineers was planning to issue that would allow two companies to fill thousands of feet of streams with mining waste in West Virginia and Kentucky.
In letters sent Monday to the Corps' office in Huntington, W.Va., the EPA said that Central Appalachia Mining and Highland Mining Co. have not done enough to avoid and minimize damage to water quality and stream channels.
In the case of the Highland Mining's plans, which would fill in approximately 13,174 feet of stream in Logan County, W.Va., the agency said it believes the project "will result in substantial and unacceptable impacts to aquatic resources of national importance."