Federal regulators on Thursday issued the first of a series of strip mining permits that have been tied up for months by the controversy over mountaintop removal.The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers approved the 336-acre mine for Pittston Coal subsidiary Vandalia Mining.EPA and the Corps pushed the permit through a week after being scolded by U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd and Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., for taking too long to process mining applications."We promised West Virginia that we would make permit decisions quickly so that coal can be mined, people can be employed, and the environment can be protected," said EPA Region III Administrator Michael McCabe.McCabe praised Pittston for reducing the size of the permit's valley fills by 20 percent, agreeing to channel clean water through the mine from the hill above and improving the stream sedimentation pond.But the permit appears to violate a federal court settlement that required mining proposals with large valley fills to be approved as more rigorous "individual" permits, rather than less stringent, nationwide "general" permits. State and federal officials have blocked new mining proposals for months as they struggled to work out the details of the court settlement.Vandalia wants to expand a large mining complex along the Clay-Nicholas County line.Earlier this year, Pittston threatened to layoff up to 230 miners if it did not receive new permits.On Thursday, Vandalia Resources President G.O. Young said his company would cancel the layoff notices. But Young also said Vandalia still needs a larger mountaintop removal permit for Ike's Fork if its Clay County operations are to remain viable.The permit issued Thursday would allow mining along Bullpen Fork. Originally, the company proposed a valley fill in a stream that drains 340 acres. The new permit fills a stream that drains 291 acres, according to EPA officials.A federal court settlement signed by the U.S. Department of Justice says that, "as a general matter" all permits with valley fills in streams that drain 250 acres or more would be forced to receive individual permits, rather than be approved under the less stringent nationwide permit.The Bullpen Fork permit was issued under the nationwide permit.Under the Clean Water Act, activities can only be approved through a nationwide permit if regulators determine they will have minimal cumulative adverse environmental impacts.In an interview, McCabe said no agency has determined that the Bullpen Fork permit and related mining in the area will have minimal cumulative impacts. But he added that he thought the "as a general matter" language in the settlement meant there was no need for Bullpen Fork to receive an individual permit.McCabe said no one knows what the long-term cumulative impacts of large valley fills and mountaintop removal mines are. He said those questions will be answered by a two-year environmental impact study by regulators, which was also part of the court settlement.Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, said, "I think it was wrong for them to issue that permit without considering the cumulative impacts, and it should have been an individual permit."
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.