CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration has cleared more than
three-dozen new mountaintop removal permits for issuance by the U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers, drawing quick criticism from environmental
groups who had hoped the new president would halt the controversial
In a surprise announcement Friday, Rep. Nick J. Rahall said 42 of the
48 permits already examined by the U.S. Environmental Protection had
been approved by EPA for issuance by the corps.
"It is unfortunate that, when EPA once again began reviewing proposed
coal mining permits earlier this year, alarmists claimed that a
moratorium on permit issuance was being proposed," Rahall said in a
telephone news conference. "That was not that case then, and it is not
the case now."
The West Virginia Democrat is chairman of the House Natural Resources
Committee, which oversees the federal strip mining law, and represents
a district that includes most of the state's southern coal counties.
Rahall said officials from the EPA told him their review so far has
objected to only six of the 48 Clean Water Act permits the Corps of
Engineers had proposed to issue.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson had announced in March that her staff
was taking a closer look at those permits because of concerns that
mountaintop removal was burying streams and damaging downstream water
quality. Carl Pope, director of the Sierra Club environmental group,
said Friday's announcement by Rahall raises questions about whether
Jackson and EPA are up to the task.
"Because it appears that EPA is unwilling to intervene, it is now
imperative that the White House Council on Environmental Quality take
immediate action to stop the bulldozers," Pope said in a prepared
statement. "The Obama administration should take swift action to fix
the flawed 'fill rule' that enables this type of devastating mining and
should act decisively to save the mountains, rivers and communities of
The exact implications of Rahall's announcement were not clear, though,
and some of the numbers he mentioned did not match earlier information
made public about the numbers of permits objected to by the EPA.
Rahall said the EPA had objected to three permits in West Virginia, two
in Ohio and one in Kentucky, but previously, the EPA had released
objection letters to at least five permits in West Virginia alone.
"We have asked the agency to identify 42 permits over which it does not
have concerns, and to explain the difference between the mines they
have approved and the few where they have raised concerns," said Joan
Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for the nonprofit environmental law
"So far, we have not seen any such information," Mulhern said.
"There is no scientific study that we are aware of that finds that
there is any mountaintop removal that is not harmful."
At the same time, Rahall said there are still probably another 150
mountaintop removal permits across the Appalachian coalfields that are
still awaiting EPA review.
Rahall said he has asked federal officials "to conduct permit reviews
in a transparent and coordinated process" and "to conduct them as
expeditiously as possible.
"For its part, the coal industry cannot comply with a moving target,"
Rahall said. "Having regulatory stability is vitally important to the
industry, its workers and those of us who reside in the coalfields of
Southern West Virginia. It is also equally important to environmental
Adora Andy, a spokeswoman for the EPA's Jackson, issued a short
statement early Friday evening in response to questions about Rahall's
"EPA continues to conduct a detailed and rigorous review of all pending
Clean Water Act permits for mines in the Appalachian coalfields," the
statement said. "We have concluded, under the law, that six projects of
an initial 48 permits EPA reviewed will not proceed unless adverse
environmental impacts are further reduced.
"We will continue to follow the law and use the best science as we
quickly and thoroughly evaluate over 150 pending applications to reduce
harmful environmental impacts," the EPA said.
The statement said, the "EPA decided not to provide additional comments
on the remaining 42 permits after consideration of the nature and
extent of project impacts. Twenty-eight of the projects have two or
fewer valley fills. Eleven have no valley fills at all. None have more
"EPA's understanding is that none of the projects would permanently
impact high value streams that flow year-round," the EPA said. "By
contrast, EPA has opposed six permits because they would all result in
significant adverse impacts to high value streams, involve large
numbers of valley fills, and impact watersheds with extensive previous