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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration has again questioned a huge mountaintop removal mine associated with the King Coal Highway, and is pressuring state regulators and CONSOL Energy to reduce the mine's potential impacts.U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said the 2,300-acre Buffalo Mountain Surface Mine is "among the largest single mining projects ever proposed in Appalachia."EPA officials noted the operation, proposed for between Belo and Delbarton in Mingo County, would bury nearly 10 miles of streams beneath waste rock and dirt, under 13 separate valley fills. The permit includes 159 separate water pollution outfalls."The scale and magnitude of environmental and water quality impacts from the mine as currently proposed are as significant as any mining operation we have reviewed in the past 20 years," EPA regional water quality director Jon Capacasa wrote last week in a letter to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Capacasa wrote to DEP to file a specific objection to a Clean Water Act pollution discharge permit for the operation. The letter is a step toward EPA taking over the handling of the permit application, which would normally be processed by DEP.EPA officials have expressed major concerns about the Buffalo Mountain proposal, submitting a letter objecting to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers "dredge-and-fill" permit for the operation on the day President Obama was inaugurated.CONSOL wants to mine 16 million tons of coal at the site over a 14-year period, and part of its post-mining land use plan involves construction of the King Coal Highway on mined-out area. DOH says the plan reduces the cost of the Delbarton to Belo section of the road from nearly $200 million to just less than $90 million.But EPA said in its recent letter that DEP has not included adequate pollution monitoring or discharge limits in its proposed water quality permit for the operation. EPA cites the growing body of scientific literature that documents "the adverse water quality, environmental, and public health effects of Appalachian surface coal mining.""The EPA's review of the mining operator's proposal indicates that feasible, cost effective steps are available to be incorporated into the operation to avoid and minimize the significant, adverse environmental and water quality impacts associated with the Buffalo Mountain mine," EPA said. "Unlike Buffalo Mountain's mine design, modern, technically feasible, and cost-effective mining practices are being proposed and incorporated by many mining companies into their mine designs with the intent to significantly reduce the adverse impacts to the aquatic ecosystem."On Wednesday, the Federal Highway Administration and the state Division of Highways announced they would conduct an additional study of the potential environmental impacts of the highway, with a focus on the Buffalo Mountain mining project.EPA said that study "will provide a helpful vehicle for agencies to work together to identify improvements in the mine design to reduce potential adverse impacts to water quality, public health and the environment."CONSOL officials offered no immediate response to the EPA letter.Tom Clarke, director of DEP's Division of Mining and Reclamation, said his office is reviewing the EPA's letter."We'll certainly look at the letter and determine how to respond," Clarke said. "We've had some constructive discussions with them."Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.