Federal regulators have started the process of putting new mountaintop removal mining permits through additional scrutiny required by a court settlement.
On Friday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a public notice for a Clean Water Act permit for a mine Appalachian Mining Inc. wants to operate near Fourmile Fork in Fayette County.
Under a court settlement, the corps will have to review the proposal as an individual "dredge and fill" permit - not as part of a much less rigorous nationwide permit used to authorize strip mines for years.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said the individual permits will require the corps to conduct extensive "environmental assessments," or EAs, which study possible impacts of mines before they are approved.
"This will be the first time we go through this process," said Mike Gheen, chief of the regulatory branch of the corps office in Huntington.
Coal operators and environmentalists are watching the situation closely.
Industry officials fear the individual permits could take up to two years to process, a delay they say would cripple coal mining in the region. Environmentalists worry the corps won't take the new permitting method seriously enough, leading to mines being approved with the same lack of oversight as occurred under the old process.
"They can do an EA and blow things off, or it can be a full-fledged, good study," said Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.
The conservancy and a group of coalfield residents filed a lawsuit last year to try to curb mountaintop removal mining.
To settle part of the suit, federal regulators agreed to a two-year environmental study aimed at coming up with new rules on mountaintop removal. In the meantime, most mountaintop removal permits must receive the individual corps permits, according to the settlement.
But regulators are offering little information about how the individual permits will be processed, or how environmental assessments for those permits will be conducted.
The corps' public notice on the Appalachian Mining permit offers little explanation. The four-page notice does not say how many acres of land will be impacted by the mine.
Division of Environmental Protection records show the mine would strip about 730 acres near Fourmile Fork, a tributary of Smithers Creek in western Fayette County.
The corps notice says the mine would involve four valley fills that would bury three acres of streams with nearly 30 million cubic yards of waste rock and earth. About 43 percent of the rock and earth from the mine would go into valley fills, rather than back on mined-out areas to rebuild the mountains, corps records show.
"The decision of whether to issue a permit will be based on an evaluation of the probable impact, including cumulative impacts of the proposed activity on the public interest," the corps notice said. "The benefit which reasonably may be expected to accrue from the proposal must be balanced against its reasonably foreseeable detriments."
Federal regulators are also being tight-lipped about what pending mining permits will be subject to the new review requirements included in the court settlement. Officials from various agencies have held numerous closed-door meetings to try to sort out which permits should be included.
The settlement states that all permits that include valley fills in streams that drain 250 acres will be subject to the requirements. It also says that any other permits that would have more than minimal impacts on the environment would be included. No one has defined what "minimal impacts" means.
In a report filed with Congress last week, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining said that it has a list of 38 surface mining permits pending before the state DEP.
The report said that 16 of those permits involve valley fills in streams that drain 250 acres or more. It said that six other permits may cause greater than minimal impact on the environment. Presumably, those 22 permits would have to undergo additional regulatory scrutiny under the court settlement.
In recent months, DEP officials have released various lists of pending permits, but none of those matched the numbers discussed in the OSM report.
Roger Calhoun, director of the OSM field office in Charleston, refused to release a copy of the agency's permit list or its preliminary findings about the permits.
"It's a preliminary list," Calhoun said. "It's still under review. We're not trying to keep it secret. We just want to work with the other agencies to sort this out."
DEP records, however, show that several huge surface mining permits have not been considered among those that would be subject to additional regulatory scrutiny.
Among those are a 1,364-acre permit requested by an A.T. Massey Coal subsidiary, and a 487-acre permit requested by Fola Coal Co., according to DEP records.
Gheen said last week that the discussions about which permits are covered by the settlement don't really matter. He said his agency would decide which mining proposals must receive individual permits when permit applications for those proposals are filed.To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.