The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it’s going to hold up 79 applications for surface coal mine permits in four states (West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee) for further “enhanced” review. All 79 permits were on a preliminary list released September 11 (See additional coverage in Appalachian Profile, p. 32). The EPA says it will work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issues the permits, and applicants to reduce water quality damage. The action is the latest attempt by the EPA to rein in mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia. The highly efficient, but evasive mining practice has been targeted by the Obama administration’s EPA.

“The EPA’s announcement to halt 79 pending coal mining permits continues the moratorium on Eastern coal mining that jeopardizes the livelihoods of tens of thousands of American workers and their communities. By deciding to hold up for still further review, the agency damages a weak economy struggling to recover in the worst recession in post-war history,” said Hal Quinn, president and CEO, National Mining Association (NMA). “The EPA has adopted its own process and criteria for reviewing coal mine permits that is the responsibility of the Army Corp of Engineers. No one outside of the EPA—not even the Corps—knows what criteria the EPA has used to now find these 79 permits insufficient. Permit applicants do not know what conditions outside the bounds of the existing regulations they must meet to obtain a permit. In effect, the EPA is imposing new regulations that have not been proposed or publicly reviewed as required by law. This action reinforces our earlier call for a transparent process that gives coal operators confidence in the regulatory process.

“We’re at a loss to understand how the EPA’s moratorium on coal mining aligns with the public interest and the administration’s attempt to restore economic growth and create high wage jobs,” Quinn said.

In March, the EPA halted several mining permit applications in order to review the water-resources impacts of such permits. In June, the Obama administration announced an unprecedented interagency action plan to reduce environmental impacts of mountaintop coal mining. The EPA has approved one of six major mountaintop mining permits issued by the corps to CONSOL Energy’s Peg Fork surface mine near Chattaroy in Mingo County, W.Va.