The agency’s guidance for regional offices clarifies existing requirements of the Section 402 and 404 Clean Water Act (CWA) permitting programs that apply to pollution from surface coal mining operations in streams and wetlands. The agency said it also expects this information will provide improved consistency and predictability in the CWA permitting process and help to strengthen coordination with other federal and state regulatory agencies and mining companies.

The agency is making publicly available two scientific reports prepared by its Office of Research and Development (ORD). One summarizes the aquatic impacts of mountaintop mining and valley fills. The second report establishes a scientific benchmark for unacceptable levels of conductivity that threaten stream life. These reports are being published for public comment and submitted for peer review to the EPA Science Advisory Board.

The EPA is creating a permit tracking Web site so the public can determine the status of mining permits subject to the EPA-U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Enhanced Coordination Procedure (ECP).

To protect water quality, the EPA has identified a range of conductivity (a measure of the level of salt in the water) of 300 to 500 microSiemens per centimeter. The maximum benchmark conductivity of 500 microSiemens per centimeter is a measure of salinity that is roughly five times above normal levels. The conductivity levels identified in the clarifying guidance are intended to protect 95% of aquatic life and fresh water streams in central Appalachia.

The impact of this policy will be severely detrimental to mining. “This is a sweeping regulatory action that affects not only all coal mining in the region, but also other activities with the potential to impact Appalachian stream quality, according to EPA Administrator Jackson,” said Bruce Watzman National Mining Association (NMA) senior vice president for regulatory affairs. “The policy was announced without the required transparency and opportunity for public comment that is normally afforded to policies of this magnitude. Nor does the guidance strike a much-needed balance between the economic needs and environmental expectations of the affected workers and local communities.

“The EPA continues to point to new science that has been found to be both flawed and limited in its findings and application as justification for this announcement,” Watzman said. “The EPA took unprecedented steps to suspend an existing permit that had undergone a five-year, comprehensive environmental impact analysis as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.” The NMA is urging the EPA to give greater thought to the impact on jobs, affordable electricity and U.S. steel production caused by further permitting delays and roadblocks resulting from the agency’s ill-considered policy decisions.

The EPA will solicit public comments on the new guidance. The guidance will be effective immediately on an interim basis. The documents are available at http://www.epa.gov/owow/wetlands/guidance/mining.html.