CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Obama administration officials on Thursday
outlined their plans to try to reduce environmental damage from
mountaintop removal, but stopped short of actions coal industry critics
say are needed to curb destruction of Appalachian hills, forests and
Federal regulators said they planned to abandon a streamlined
permitting process for valley fills that bury streams, toughen ongoing
reviews of a permit application backlog, and examine long-term changes
to policies to find ways to continue large-scale strip mining without
doing as much damage.
"This administration is taking unprecedented steps to reduce the
environmental effects of mountaintop coal mining," said Nancy Sutley,
chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
The White House and three different agencies announced the new efforts
amid continued political pressure from citizen groups who want
mountaintop removal stopped, and mine operators -- joined by coalfield
politicians and the United Mine Workers -- who oppose moves that would
tighten regulations or delay permit approvals.
But the Obama proposals did not please critics from either side.
Coal industry officials said the initiative creates more uncertainty
about the hoops companies must jump through to open new mines, while
environmental groups objected that more concrete steps were not taken
to immediately slow the destructive mining practice.
"Mountains are being blown up today. Streams are being buried today.
And the administration needs to move beyond rhetoric to real action,"
said Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment director Joe Lovett, one of a handful of lawyers who have been fighting mountaintop removal in court for a decade.
UMW President Cecil Roberts complained that environmental regulators
had not consulted him when they were drawing up their plans, and
threatened to oppose Obama's proposals if they appeared to put union
miners' jobs at risk.
"I want to be clear: As events unfold over the next months and in the
longer term, the UMWA will continue to fight for our members' jobs,
their livelihoods and a secure future for their families," Roberts said
in a prepared statement. "And we will do so without regard to who we
have to fight with."
Coal industry officials responded that the Obama proposals for some
short-term changes in permit review policies, coupled with medium- and
long-range potential regulatory changes, do little to tell mine
operators what tests they'll need to obtain new permits.
"I think they've added to the uncertainty," said Carol Raulston, spokeswoman for the National Mining Association. "When you have a moving target that is not clearly defined, I think that only adds to the uncertainty."
Raulston said her group also disagrees with the Obama
administration's general conclusion that current mining enforcement has
"failed to protect our communities, water, and wildlife in Appalachia."
"I think that is a very subjective and broad statement that we would disagree with," Raulston said.
Industry officials credit mountaintop removal with producing nearly 130
million tons of coal a year in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and
Tennessee, and with providing 14,000 jobs.
But government studies have found that mountaintop removal has buried
hundreds of miles of streams across the region, and that the practice
is damaging downstream water quality, causing serious forest
fragmentation, and, among other impacts, contributing to flooding.
"We're talking many, many pounds of debris, burying many, many miles of
streams and the connection between that and water quality is in many
cases fairly apparent and easily demonstrated," said Bob Sussman, a
senior policy adviser for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "So we think we are concerned with environmental impacts that are real, that are serious, and are not simply theoretical."
In the short-term, EPA said it plans to strengthen its review of Clean
Water Act permits for mining that are currently handled by various
state regulatory authorities. And as a long-range objective, EPA said
it would consider "revisions to how surface coal mining activities are
evaluated, authorized and regulated" under that law.
But administration officials conceded that there are many questions yet
to be answered about where mountaintop removal regulation is headed.
For example, Interior Department officials said they hoped to convince
a federal court to throw out Bush administration changes to the stream
"buffer zone" rule, a move they had already announced more than a month
ago. But on Thursday, they added that they have not yet decided whether
in reverting to a 1983 version of the rule they will apply that rule to
the footprint of valley fills -- a move that, if adopted, would ban
those fills in perennial and intermittent streams.
"The guidance is still being developed," said Peter Mali, spokesman for
Interior's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.
"That's where we are. It's unclear what the guidance will and will not
Also, a key part of the Obama plan is to halt the use of the U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers streamlined Clean Water Act permitting review
But U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin has already thrown out that
process, at least in Southern West Virginia, and -- in contrast to
Thursday's announcement -- the Obama Justice Department earlier this
week filed a formal notice that it plans to appeal Goodwin's ruling.
Sutley called the appeal notice a "procedural filing," and said there
have been "no policy decisions made with respect to that case."