News Analysis: Staying on Top of Mountaintop Mining

The Environmental Protection Agency is changing course on its review of mountaintop mining permits. This change has raised protest from the mining industry and praise from environmental groups. Mountaintop mining blows off the tops of mountains to get at the coal. The mining debris is dumped in streams and wetlands. The Allegheny Front's news analyst Ann Murray joins Host Matthew Craig to talk about EPA's new direction in mountaintop oversight.

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OPEN: The Environmental Protection Agency is changing course on its review of mountaintop mining permits. This change has raised protest from the mining industry and praise from environmental groups. Mountaintop mining blows off the tops of mountains to get at the coal. The mining debris is dumped in streams and wetlands. The Allegheny Front's news analyst Ann Murray joins me to talk about EPA's new direction in mountaintop oversight.

M: For the last eight years the Bush administration worked to reduce oversight of mountaintop mining. What's changed under new leadership at EPA?

A: EPA's chief, Lisa Jackson, has just announced that her agency will review 150 to 200 applications for new or expanded surface coal mines that are pending before the federal government. A lot of the applications are mountaintop mining operations.

M: How does that change the review of permits?

A: Permits are traditionally reviewed by regional branches of the Army Corps of Engineers. EPA has always had the legal authority to review and deny mining permits issued by the Army Corps but didn't use that authority much at all when President Bush was in office.

M: There has been some reporting that EPA will veto all of the permits. Is that true?

A: EPA denies that. The agency says they will review all the permits but for now they're concerned about three particular permits slated for approval by the Army Corps of Engineers.

M: What's the agency worried about?

A: The EPA sent a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers in Huntington, WV saying the mining companies seeking these permits haven't done enough to make sure that they don't damage streams when they dump mining debris. EPA chief, Lisa Jackson, says her agency's actions "reflect EPA's considerable concern regarding the environmental impact these projects would have on fragile habitats and streams."

M: The Army Corps of Engineers has long been questioned about their mine permitting process. What have groups objected to?

A: Environmental groups have objected to the Corps almost universal decisions to grant permits. The Corps has been sued a number of times by environmental and community groups for not doing a complete job in their evaluation of the impacts of mountaintop mining on ecosystems.

M: These environmental and community groups say the Clean Water Act should stop mine companies from causing environmental damage. What does the Clean Water Act mandate?

A: Under the Clean Water Act, companies can't dump rock, dirt and other debris into streams unless they can show they won't cause permanent damage to waterways or the fish and other wildlife that live in them.

M: But there was a recent court decision that says the Army Corps doesn't have to do more than they're already doing. What about that?

A: Last month an appeals panel in Richmond, Va., tossed out a lower court's ruling that would have required the Corps to conduct more extensive reviews.

M: The coal mining industry is openly worried about EPA's change in oversight. What has the industry been saying?

A: The National Mining Association estimates EPA's reviews could threaten thousands of coal mining jobs and millions of tons of annual production in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia, Ohio and Illinois.

M: It's not just the industry complaining though. Governors in some coal mining states have been vocal,too.

A: West Virgina governor Joe Manchin went to Washington to get clarification about EPA's intent. He's told the press that he's looking for economic and environmental balance. Manchin said state officials would meet with EPA and coal companies to try to get agreements on the applications.

M: West Virginia gets a sizable chunk of revenue from mining, doesn't it?

A: Yes. Coal prices are now going down, but state budget planners still think total coal severance tax collections will go higher than $400 million this year. The state is expected to get $320 million of that, or about 8 percent of West Virginia's total general revenue collections.

M: Any thought that mountaintop mining will be banned?

A: Doubtful. During last year's election, both candidates talked about mountain top mining. Senator John McCain called for an outright ban. Barack Obama had objections to the proactice but didn't go that far.

M: Thanks,Ann.

A: Sure.