Federal agencies announce coordinated approach to protecting streams

The Obama administration made a major announcement today to clarify its approach to protecting the public from the dumping of mining wastes into streams.

Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Interior and Army Corps of Engineers participated in a press conference to describe a new "Interagency Action Plan on Appalachian Surface Coal Mining."

Despite the positive steps to lessen the impacts, especially those related to water quality, of mountaintop removal there was no talk among federal officials of ending the practice. And an aggressive approach to protecting water quality could also have included support for the Clean Water Protection Act pending in Congress and a more active role for the U.S. Office of Surface Mining in doing its job of protecting people and the environment.

And James Bruggers in The Courier-Journal reported that: "during a telephone press conference yesterday, officials struggled to describe what practical differences in mountaintop mining would result from the policy changes. When asked, for example, whether there would be fewer or smaller strip mines in the mountains, Bob Sussman, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency senior policy adviser, said the EPA under the Obama administration would be more diligent in exercising its responsibilities."

"The steps we are taking today are a firm departure from the previous administration's approach to mountaintop coal mining, which failed to protect our communities, water, and wildlife in Appalachia," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. "By toughening enforcement standards, by looking for common-sense improvements to our rules and regulations, and by coordinating our efforts with other agencies, we will immediately make progress toward reducing the environmental impacts of mountaintop coal mining."

The agreement is significant in that, for the first time, the federal government is acknowledging through policy the deep and long-term consequences of mountaintop removal and valley fills. For example, officials said they would look at the cumulative impact of valley fill permits on water quality and look at entire watersheds instead of isolated streams.

"They mentioned looking at cumulative impacts, and looking at entire watersheds, which are things that have never been considered before."

"And the presence of selenium and manganese in waters below valley fills is well documented but has not been considered in making decisions about issuing permits. Just acknowledging the presence of these pollutants in very important," said KFTC Fellow Teri Blanton.

Some of the short-term steps the agencies said they would do include:

  • within 30 days begin the process for revoking the "nationwide permit" for valley fills, the legal framework under which the Corps of Engineers rubber stamped many valley fill permits (something a federal judge has already ordered be done);
  • continue to work for the reinstatement of the Stream Buffer Zone rule (that requires mining impacts to be kept 100 feet from a stream) and issue guidelines to clarify its implementation;
  • work with state agencies "to strengthen state regulation, enforcement, and permitting of surface
    mining operations" under various sections of the Clean Water Act.
  • involve the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in policy and decision-making related to valley fills and their environmental impacts.

 The agencies also announced some long-term goals, which include reviewing "existing regulatory authorities and procedures to determine whether regulatory modifications should be proposed to better protect the environment and public health from the impacts of Appalachian surface coal mining." This could include provisions of the 1977 Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act such as the requirement that post-mined land be returned to approximate original contour.

The Associated Press reported that administration officials called officials with state enforcement agencies in the affected states to deliver a different message. "The purposes stated today was to actually make [the permit process] more effective, make it more efficient, make it more transparent. And say yes more quickly and no more quickly," Len Peters, Kentucky's energy and environmental secretary, told the AP.

"Overall, the interagency agreement is a step in the right direction. It's always a good thing to protect people and water," Blanton pointed out. "But this announcement is not an end to mountaintop removal. As Wendell Berry has stated, you can't regulate an abomination."

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