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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Despite strong pressure from the coal industry and its political allies, the Obama administration on Thursday finalized new guidance aimed at reducing the environmental and public health impacts of mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia.U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson has said that "no or very few valley fills" would be approved under new guidance that EPA regional offices will now impose on state regulators for permits under the federal Clean Water Act.EPA officials said the guidelines -- being challenged in court and under fire from Congress -- are needed because of a growing body of science that details devastating water quality impacts downstream of large-scale surface mines.
"The science holds up the actions they are taking 100 percent," said Margaret Palmer, a University of Maryland biologist who has been studying mountaintop removal's effects on streams and aquatic life. "It is blatant that the biodiversity is just decimated when you have these valley fills above streams."The new EPA guidance calls for tougher permit reviews, including more detailed studies of whether mining impacts can be avoided or reduced, new testing of potential toxic impacts of mining discharges, and tough limits on the increases in electrical conductivity, a crucial measure of water quality.EPA said in a statement that the guidance would not block all mining permits, and cited three examples over the last two years when agency officials worked out acceptable deals with coal operators to approve new mining projects."Under this guidance, EPA will continue to work with other federal agencies, state, local communities, and companies to design mining operations that adequately protect our nation's waters and people's health," said Nancy Stoner, EPA's acting assistant administrator for water. "We have a responsibility under the law to protect water quality and this guidance allows EPA to work with companies to meet that goal, based on the best science."In the 61-page guidance memo, EPA said that since 1992, more than 1,200 miles of Appalachian streams have been filled by Appalachian coal mining operations. EPA cited an ongoing rate of about 120 miles of streams per year being impacted."Further, while precise estimates are limited, the estimated scale of deforestation from existing Appalachian surface mining operations is greater in size than the state of Delaware, or 5,700 square kilometers, predicted to be affected by 2012," the EPA guidance memo said. "The full cumulative effects of surface coal mining operations at this scope and scale are still largely unknown."EPA also noted, "possible human health impacts from coal-mining activities have also been documented, including peer-reviewed public health literature that has preliminarily identified associations between increases in surface coal mining activities and increasing rates of cancer, birth defects, and other health problems in Appalachian communities."The final guidance comes more than a year after EPA in April 2010 issued a draft version that it said would be implemented immediately, prior to a lengthy public comment period that eventually drew more than 60,000 responses. Officials from the White House Office of Management and Budget gave the guidance final approval on Wednesday, after a three-month review demanded by Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va. Last week, the House approved Rahall-authored legislation to strip EPA of its authority to overrule state water quality limits and permits it believes are too weak.Coal industry officials and coalfield political leaders, including then-Gov. Joe Manchin, filed suit over the EPA proposal, alleging EPA had essentially issued new mining regulations without going through required rulemaking procedures.Environmental and citizen groups generally welcomed Thursday's announcement, though some said that the Obama administration had not gone far enough. Industry groups blasted EPA."Despite the administration's pledges to focus on jobs creation, today's final guidance is a jobs destroyer and does nothing to cure EPA's unlawful permit moratorium on coal mining in Appalachia," Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, said in a statement.
The mining association and its allies have already won an initial legal skirmish. A federal judge ruled in January that EPA might have wrongly ignored rulemaking requirements such as the ability for the public to comment before the draft guidance was implemented. Hearings on the matter are not scheduled to take place until late October, but EPA is due to file a key legal brief Friday.As it has in the past, EPA emphasized in Thursday's announcement that the new water quality guidance "is not a rule and is not binding legally or in practice."Such language drew criticism from the group Appalachian Voices, which said its review of the final guidance shows it gives EPA and state regulators far more leeway to approve mining operations, despite their potential impacts."We'd certainly rather have this guidance than not have it," said Matt Wasson, director of programs for Appalachian Voices. "But I'm concerned that the Obama administration is backsliding on its commitment to protect the health of people impacted by mountaintop removal coal mining."Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.