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EPA planning to veto first strip-mine permit


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it will use its authority for the first time to revoke a previously issued permit for a West Virginia surface mine.

Acting EPA Regional Administrator William Early said in a letter sent to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Huntington district that the agency is “taking this unusual step in response to our very serious concerns” that the project could violate the Clean Water Act.

According to the EPA, the agency has never used its authority to review a previously permitted project since Congress enacted the Clean Water Act in 1972.

The permit was issued in 2007 for Mingo Logan Coal’s Spruce No. 1 mine, which is owned by St. Louis-based Arch Coal Inc.

It would allow the company to fill valleys at the site with material removed to expose coal, a practice widely opposed by environmentalists.

The EPA’s unprecedented move “reflects the magnitude and scale of anticipated direct, indirect, and cumulative adverse environmental impacts associated with this mountaintop removal mining operation,” Early wrote.

The project would be the largest authorized mountaintop removal operation in Appalachia and it would occur in a watershed where the EPA says many streams have been affected by previous mining. There are 12 more surface mining projects either proposed or authorized but not built in the same watershed.

Company officials said in a statement they were “shocked” by the action against the permit, saying it was “the most carefully scrutinized and fully considered mine permit in West Virginia’s history,” taking almost 10 years.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin and U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, both Democrats, criticized the EPA. Rockefeller called it “wrong and unfair” to change the rules for a permit that already was approved.

“When businesses make good faith efforts and fully comply with all applicable laws and regulations, they must have the confidence that the commitments made by the government will be honored,” Rockefeller said.

“To say that I am mad would be an understatement,” Manchin said.

“The Spruce Number 1 Mine permit was one of the most reviewed and carefully examined permits in history … and now the EPA is telling the employees and the business that made the investment that ‘No, you cannot work.’ This is a prime example of how the federal government is not working for the people,” Manchin said.

Arch Coal received the corps permit in January 2007 for a 2,278-acre mine, after scaling back the project from what was initially approved in late 1990s.

The original permit covered 3,113 acres and allowed the company to dump waste rock and dirt into more than 10 miles of streams. The current permit allows the mine to dump waste rock and dirt into nearly seven miles of streams, according to Army Corps permit documents and state DEP records.

The EPA letter was released a day after EPA Director Lisa Jackson told West Virginia Democrat Nick Rahall during a U.S. House committee hearing that EPA does not have a hidden agenda against the coal industry. She also said EPA has a responsibility to address mining issues that affect water quality.

Officials with the EPA and the state Department of Environmental Protection also met last week in Charleston to discuss strategies on dealing with EPA concerns about mining operations through state-issued water pollution discharge permits.

The Sierra Club applauded the EPA’s move and said it “underscores the need for the Obama administration to develop new regulations to end mountaintop removal mining once and for all.”

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