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EPA, coal companies resolve permit disputes


The Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday it is negotiating changes that may allow Arch Coal to continue operating a controversial mountaintop removal coal mine in southern West Virginia.

The agency said Arch has agreed to delay action in a federal lawsuit involving the Spruce No. 1 mine until March while it tries to negotiate changes that eliminate Clean Water Act violations.

The agency announced last fall that it plans to revoke a 2007 water quality permit allowing Arch to bury intermittent streams with excess rock at the mine. While socalled valley fills are allowed by federal law, environmentalists want the practice banned.

West Virginia will continue trying to seek clarity from the EPA on the Spruce mine and permitting issues in general, Gov. Joe Manchin said.

The EPA also confirmed that it’s dropped objections to the Army Corps of Engineers issuing a similar permit for Patriot Coal’s proposed Hobet 45 mine in Lincoln County. The permit affects about 500 mining jobs.

Among other things, Patriot agreed to cut the number of stream miles to be buried at Hobet, direct mine drainage away from surface water and protect highly productive streams at the site, the EPA said.

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups criticized the Hobet decision, saying it means more destruction for Appalachia.

U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told him on New Years Eve that the agency would send Patriot’s application to the Army Corps of Engineers this week. The EPA reviews applications; it’s up to the corps to issue Clean Water Act permits allowing operators to bury intermittent streams with excess material removed from surface mines.

Rahall said Patriot negotiated concessions including waterquality monitoring with the EPA to get the permit. A spokeswoman for the St. Louis-based coal company did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

“In my discussion with Lisa Jackson,” Rahall said, “she was highly complimentary of Patriot, the efforts they’ve made to come in compliance and work with the EPA.”

The application is one of 79 held up for extra scrutiny in September as part of the Obama administration’s attempt to curb environmental damage from a mining practice known as mountaintop removal. The EPA said at the time that each permit likely would cause significant damage to water quality and the environment.

The permits would allow mine operators to bury intermittent streams with excess material removed to expose coal seams. Environmental groups including the Sierra Club and the Rainforest Action Committee want Obama to ban the practice, arguing it destroys ancient mountain peaks, fouls water and damages the culture of Appalachia.

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