Thursday, June 11, 2009

Agencies announce plan to 'significantly reduce' environmental harm from mountaintop removal

At the same time President Barack Obama was rolling out his plan to reform health care, three federal agencies were announcing a memorandum of understanding to deal with another controversial topic, mountaintop-removal strip mining of coal. "Administration officials announced that they are taking a series of short-, medium- and long-range steps that they say will allow mountaintop removal to continue, but reduce the impacts to communities and the environment," reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette.

The agreement involves the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of the Interior, which includes the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. EPA says the agreement is "designed to significantly reduce the harmful environmental consequences of Appalachian surface coal mining operations, while ensuring that future mining remains consistent with federal law."

The plan will eliminate the Corps' streamlined permitting process for mines, as The Washington Post reported this morning. The Justice Department this week appealed a federal judge's decision tossing out the fast-track system, but Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said that was only a procedural step to preserve a potential appeal. She spoke in a conference call with reporters.

Beyond fast track, the impact of the plan is unclear. Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes was unresponsive when asked if his agency would apply its new buffer-zone rule to "the footprint of valley fills, a move that would block new fills in perennial and intermittent streams," Ward reports. "Until we know exactly how OSMRE under Obama plans to interpret the rule, the move to overturn the Bush changes really doesn’t mean a darned thing."

Ward's post on his Coal Tattoo blog includes links to the conference call, the memorandum of understanding, a Corps-EPA memo to regional offices on coordination of permit reviews, and a letter from EPA explaining how it will review Corps permit decisions.

Reaction from environmental interests so far has been unfavorable. The Kentucky Resources Council said it appreciates the new policies but "harbors serious concerns regarding whether the proposed reforms go far enough to assure full implementation" of the Clean Water Act and the federal strip-mine law, Director Tom FitzGerald said in a detailed statement. He said the EPA's schedule could lead to inadequate review of permit applications, and called for OSMRE to "take a much more significant role in minimizing the footprint" of all forms of surface mining and do a better job of enforcing the 1977 strip-mine law.

Fitzgerald said OSMRE and state permitting agencies have ignored the law's requirement to restore mined land to its original elevation, allowed valley fills to be created by dumping blasted rock instead of constructing engineered structures, and failed to the cumulative impact of mines on a watershed. He said they should, among other measures, require coal companies to use fewer fills, allow only the mining method that would most quickly restore vegetation to the land, and if practicable put blasted rock in fills above the mine site rather than valley fills below. For the full statement, click here.

Ward highlights FitzGerald's statement in a nice roundup of comments. His succinct summary: "The announcement drew littleraise from either side of the debate." On Grist, Jeff Biggers quotes mountaintop-mining foes Teri Blanton of Kentucky, Judy Bonds and Cindy Rank of West Virginia and Paul Ryder of Ohio. Ryder said, "These maneuvers," Ryder said, "are fooling no one." Bonds called it "pure political subterfuge." Blanton said, "Today’s annnouncement is encouraging but we will have to wait and see if this is going to be good or bad." (Read more)

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