THE good news is that state and federal regulators are finally agreeing on the need for a comprehensive study of the effects of mountaintop-removal mining and the subsequent valley fills.The bad news is that they want to let the operations continue while the study is conducted, even though the study itself is an explicit admission that all mountaintop-removal and valley-fill permits are illegal.The 1977 federal Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act requires regulators to know the cumulative hydrological impacts of a surface mine before issuing a permit.In a letter to Gov. Underwood's mountaintop-removal task force, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency representative listed the information a comprehensive study would need to determine, including projections of the direct, indirect and cumulative impacts from the loss of streams covered by valley fills.
But SMCRA requires regulating agencies to have this information before permits are issued. By requesting this study, EPA is admitting it has been ignoring the law.The simple and sad fact is that no one - not the mining companies, not scientists and certainly not the regulators - knows what effect mountaintop removal and valley fills will have on the waters of this state at this unprecedented scale.Federal law says that regulators must know how these operations will affect water quality before they can permit them. So how can Tom Maslany, head of EPA's Region III water-protection office say that state and federal agencies will probably work out a temporary agreement to continue permitting the mines while the study is ongoing? Such an agreement would have to be illegal.Unless and until regulators determine that the practice of blasting off mountaintops and dumping the refuse in stream beds is not damaging the water quality of West Virginia and the nation, not one more permit should be issued.To do otherwise would break the law.