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Trump administration touts streamlining of mine permit review

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In the run-up to President Trump’s visit to West Virginia for a rally Thursday evening in Huntington, administration officials — with help from the coal industry and state political leaders — this week touted work by the U.S. Department of Interior to speed up approval of a permit for a new underground coal mine that could bring 200 mining jobs to the depressed coalfields of McDowell County.

But the scope of what Interior officials did to ease the way for approval of a permit for the Berwind Mine, an underground operation that Ramaco Resources wants to open along the Virginia border, isn’t exactly clear yet.

In a press release issued Monday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke indicated that the department’s Fish and Wildlife Service “had a role in approving wildlife conservation plans for two species of crayfish in conjunction with the state of West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection.”

“This administration is dedicated to streamlining permitting and approval processes, and empowering local employees to get work done on the front lines,” Zinke said in the release. “The Berwind Mine is the first of many projects that demonstrate the Trump administration’s commitment to coal country and to good government.”

Interior’s press release included quotes from Michael Bauersachs, the CEO of Ramaco Resources; Jason Bostic, a vice president of the West Viginia Coal Association; Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.; Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.; Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va.; and Austin Caperton, DEP Secretary for Gov. Jim Justice.

The release did not include any details about these “wildlife conservation plans” — a term that under the Endangered Species Act usually doesn’t refer to permit-specific actions — and federal and state officials have not provided additional information describing what exactly is included in those plans.

On Thursday afternoon, Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift explained the press release by saying that the Fish and Wildlife Service had concurred with a different document, called a “Protection and Enhancement Plan,” in which Ramaco described how it was designing the mine to “minimize impact” to the protected crayfish. Swift said that the service had consulted with the state and mine operators on three other mining projects regarding potential effects on the crayfish.

Coal industry officials and some government sources also revealed this week that top officials within the Interior Department recently quietly approved a state DEP document called, “Guide to Consideration of Potential mining-related Impacts on the Guyandotte River and Big Sandy River Crayfishes.”

That document, obtained by the Gazette-Mail this week, was approved — with a handwritten note in the upper-right corner, signed by Interior energy policy counselor Vincent DeVitor — on June 28. The state mining permit for Ramaco’s Berwind Mine was approved by the DEP two days earlier, on June 26, according to state records. And the Fish and Wildlife Service actually signed off on the Ramaco permit, with a permit-specific letter, a week before that, on June 19.

Caperton was quoted in the Interior press release as saying, “We applaud all efforts at the federal level that allow us to carry out our mission and strike the proper balance.” Jake Glance, Caperton’s media spokesman, did not respond to questions about the Ramaco permit or any changes in policy that helped speed its review and approval.

In an interview, the coal association’s Bostic said that the approval of the DEP guidance document was a welcome step forward, after months that industry officials had spent working with the state to come up with some specifics about how mining companies should address concerns about the Big Sandy and Guyandotte crayfish, both of which were given Endangered Species Act protections by the Fish and Wildlife Service in mid-2016. Bostic said the service was uncooperative in the effort for more than six months of last year, an experience he described as typical of coal industry interactions with federal agencies during the Obama administration.

“This was almost regulatory malfeasance,” Bostic said Wednesday, noting that the Berwind Mine would produce metallurgical coal at a time when that part of the industry market is a bright spot for producers.

Meanwhile, environmental groups that work to protect endangered species were caught a bit off guard by the Interior Department press release and weren’t sure exactly what changes in policy regarding the protected crayfish and coal mine permits it was intended to announce.

“Certainly, we have significant concerns about the new administration’s approach to environmental protection and trying to bulldoze their way through processes,” said Lori Ann Burd, environmental health program director and staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

It was a petition from the center that helped push the Fish and Wildlife Service to designate the Guyandotte crayfish as endangered and the Big Sandy crayfish as threatened. In making the listings, the service said that both species had declined significantly and lost habitat, with erosion and sedimentation from mining, timbering, natural gas development, highway construction, unpaved roads and off-road vehicles all contributing to the declines.

Under the Endangered Species Act, the listings of the crayfish generally means that mining companies and permitting agencies like DEP would have to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service before any activity that could harm the animals or their habitat. The listings don’t mean that mining permits can’t be approved or that further harm to the species isn’t allowed, but sets up a process for trying to avoid such damage or requiring any “take” of the species to be done through a special federal permit.

In the case of the Berwind Mine, Ramaco was first told by the state Division of Natural Resources that the agency “knows of no rare species surveys that have been conducted in the area of this proposed project site. Consequently, it is not known if any rare species or rare species habitat exists.”

That DNR conclusion, though, was made in January 2016, nearly five months before the listing of the Big Sandy Crayfish became effective on May 9, 2016. In July, after the listing, a request was made that the Fish and Wildlife Service consult concerning any potential impacts on the crayfish from the Berwind Mine. It’s not entirely clear yet what happened after that, but nearly a year later — on June 19, 2017 — the Fish and Wildlife Service office in Elkins signed off on the Berwind Mine permit.

In a letter to Ramaco’s permit consultant, the service wrote that disturbance related to the mine “will primarily occur over areas with significant prior disturbance,” and the service concurred that the company’s plan was acceptable and that the mine “was not likely to result in jeopardy” to the crayfish. DEP issued the operation’s mining permit a week later.

Ramaco officials have said that they had hoped to have the DEP mining permit approved sometime in the first quarter of 2017, and in public statements have cited an unspecified “delay” that put off that permit approval to the second quarter of the year.

“The very hard work over the past two years from all of our operating, permitting and technical teams is what made this permit possible,” Bauersachs said in a press release announcing the permit issuance. “With this critical permit in hand, we are now poised to immediately commence developing the Berwind Mine.”

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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