News Analysis: Obama Announces New Standards For Mountaintop Mining

The Obama administration has announced a new strategy for mountaintop mining oversight. The new interagency policy has met with an array of responses from environmental groups, state regulatory agencies and the mining industry. The Allegheny Front's news analyst Ann Murray joins host Matthew Craig to talk about the direction President Obama is taking in the regulation of this controversial type of strip mining.

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OPEN: The Obama administration has announced a new strategy for mountaintop removal mining oversight. The new interagency policy has met with an array of responses from environmental groups, state regulatory agencies and the mining industry. The Allegheny Front's news analyst Ann Murray is here with more about the direction President Obama is taking. Moutaintop mining operations blast off the tops of mountains to get to low sulfur seams of coal. Mining debris is dumped in nearby valleys and streams.

M: In March, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would hold up 150 mountaintop mining permits. Since then, a lot of people have been wondering what the Obama administration would do with the regulation of this controversial strip mining practice. What's happened?

A: The US Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior and the Army Corps of Engineers have announced that they're going to work together to strengthen federal oversight of mountaintop removal mining and punish mining companies that don't comply with environmental laws.

M: How do they plan to do that?

A: The agencies say that there will be closer legal and environmental scrutiny of these mining operations and they'll veto applications if these companies can't prove that they'll mitigate environmental damage when mining.

M: That sounds like a lot of the same promises that have already been made by the administration. How are these new standards different?

A: Officials say the difference will be how agencies keep a regulatory eye on mountaintop mining operations. The US EPA says the big gun will be the removal of what's known as blanket permits.

M: What are blanket permits?

A: They are general permits that companies doing similar mining projects can get under the Clean Water Act. About a third of all mountaintop removal projects are approved under general permits, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. Now, individual mining applications will have to be submitted for every project. The White House Council on Environmental Quality says federal and state agencies will be able to better assess each project on a case by case basis.

M: So will that mean fewer permits will be issued?

A: The administration isn't saying if stricter standards will mean that. The fact that agencies aren't saying what new standards mean in terms of the number of permits granted and that has caused some consternation.

M: What's been the response to this latest announcement by the Obama administration to tighten? oversight of mountaintop mining?

A: The mining industry says that increased federal oversight on a permit by permit basis will slow down mining and cost jobs in Appalachia. State regulators are saying pretty much the opposite thing: that this should streamline the process by making companies more accountable up front.

M: What about response from environmental groups?


A: Some see this as a first step toward slowing down or stopping mountaintop mining. Others see it as a concession to the mining industry because it isn't an outright ban.

M: Did President Obama ever make that promise to ban mountaintop mining?

A: During the presidential campaign he spoke out against the environmental impacts of dumping mine debris in valleys and streams but never said he'd seek a ban. He's gotten a lot of pressure from the governors of the six Appalachian states where there's mountaintop removal mining. These state officials want to make sure that this kind of mining continues because of the jobs and tax revenue connected with mountaintop mining.

M: How many jobs are we talking about?


A: The industry says 14,000 jobs are connected to mountaintop mining and it supplies about 10 percent of the coal for electricity production in the United States.

M: Isn't this still a departure from the Bush administration's oversight of mountaintop mining?

A: Yes. The Bush administration made every effort to expedite permits and soften a rule under the Clean Water Act that stopped mining within 100 feet of streams. This past April, the Interior Department asked a federal judge to vacate that rule. The Interior Department is currently reviewing the rule change.

M: Thanks, Ann. For more information about mountaintop mining and the new Obama standards, visit our web site alleghenyfront.org.