CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration has given its tentative approval to a new mountaintop removal permit, provided the Logan County operation makes changes federal regulators say are needed to protect downstream water quality.Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency quietly signed off on federal Army Corps of Engineers issuance of a Clean Water Act permit for Arch Coal Inc. subsidiary Coal-Mac Inc.'s Pine Creek Surface Mine near Omar.EPA officials praised the company for taking steps to reduce downstream water pollution, but said they also want the company to agree to build its valley fill waste piles one at a time.Coal-Mac cut its stream impacts by 22 percent, agreed to haul waste rock and dirt for disposal on an adjacent mine site rather than in streams, and increased the deck of its valley fills in another move to reduce the length of waterways buried."Where practicable, the applicant has maximized the amount of spoil returned to the mine bench and minimized the amount of excess spoil that must be disposed of in streams," EPA regional environmental assessment director John Pomponio wrote in a June 21 letter to corps District Engineer Robert D. Peterson.The permit involves a 760-acre mountaintop removal operation that was among the mining applications receiving additional scrutiny from the EPA under the Obama administration's effort to reduce impacts from Appalachian strip mining.While the coal industry favors mountaintop removal's efficiency and local political leaders praise the jobs provided, there is a growing scientific consensus that the practice is causing widespread and irreversible damage to the region's forests, water quality and communities.In one recent first-of-its kind study, for example, scientists from EPA and the University of Kentucky found that ditches mine operators build to channel runoff do not replicate the important ecological functions of headwater streams."Our findings suggest that these channels should not be considered as on-site mitigation for the natural channels buried under [valley fills]," said the study, published in the Journal of the North American Benthological Society.EPA officials in April issued new guidance for state regulatory agencies aimed at reducing mine pollution that increases streams' electrical conductivity, a key measure of water quality and potential for harm to aquatic life. Coal industry officials oppose the EPA action, and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection is considering a lawsuit to challenge the federal guidelines.In reviewing the Coal-Mac permit, EPA officials found the operator originally proposed to have the full mining area disturbed and all three proposed valley fills active within 12 to 18 months.EPA persuaded the company to delay the use of one of the three valley fills for about three years, but said wants Coal-Mac to go further and build each fill separately, waiting to start the next one until the previous one is finished. Federal officials said this would allow monitoring of each fill "prior to initial construction of subsequent fills, to ensure that predicted water quality outcomes are achieved."Arch Coal officials did not immediately say whether they would accept the new EPA conditions.The Rainforest Action Network criticized EPA's decision to sign off on the permit, saying it was "devastating" and did not live up to the agency's commitment to reduce mountaintop removal pollution."This continues the inconsistent and contradictory decisions that have plagued the EPA's process on mountaintop removal coal mining all along," the group said.Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.