Nudging Obama

Formerly "Obama Watch" Keeping the promise of change

Obama’s Mining Plans Draw Criticism from Both Sides

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Obama administration officials on Thursday outlined their plans to try to reduce environmental damage from mountaintop removal, but stopped short of actions coal industry critics say are needed to curb destruction of Appalachian hills, forests and streams.

Federal regulators said they planned to abandon a streamlined permitting process for valley fills that bury streams, toughen ongoing reviews of a permit application backlog, and examine long-term changes to policies to find ways to continue large-scale strip mining without doing as much damage.

“This administration is taking unprecedented steps to reduce the environmental effects of mountaintop coal mining,” said Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

The White House and three different agencies announced the new efforts amid continued political pressure from citizen groups who want mountaintop removal stopped, and mine operators — joined by coalfield politicians and the United Mine Workers — who oppose moves that would tighten regulations or delay permit approvals.

But the Obama proposals did not please critics from either side.

Coal industry officials said the initiative creates more uncertainty about the hoops companies must jump through to open new mines, while environmental groups objected that more concrete steps were not taken to immediately slow the destructive mining practice.

“Mountains are being blown up today. Streams are being buried today. And the administration needs to move beyond rhetoric to real action,” said Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment director Joe Lovett, one of a handful of lawyers who have been fighting mountaintop removal in court for a decade.

UMW President Cecil Roberts complained that environmental regulators had not consulted him when they were drawing up their plans, and threatened to oppose Obama’s proposals if they appeared to put union miners’ jobs at risk.

“I want to be clear: As events unfold over the next months and in the longer term, the UMWA will continue to fight for our members’ jobs, their livelihoods and a secure future for their families,” Roberts said in a prepared statement. “And we will do so without regard to who we have to fight with.”

Coal industry officials responded that the Obama proposals for some short-term changes in permit review policies, coupled with medium- and long-range potential regulatory changes, do little to tell mine operators what tests they’ll need to obtain new permits.

“I think they’ve added to the uncertainty,” said Carol Raulston, spokeswoman for theNational Mining Association. “When you have a moving target that is not clearly defined, I think that only adds to the uncertainty.”

Raulston said her group also disagrees with the Obama administration’s general conclusion that current mining enforcement has “failed to protect our communities, water, and wildlife in Appalachia.”

“I think that is a very subjective and broad statement that we would disagree with,” Raulston said.

Industry officials credit mountaintop removal with producing nearly 130 million tons of coal a year in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, and with providing 14,000 jobs.

But government studies have found that mountaintop removal has buried hundreds of miles of streams across the region, and that the practice is damaging downstream water quality, causing serious forest fragmentation, and, among other impacts, contributing to flooding.

“We’re talking many, many pounds of debris, burying many, many miles of streams and the connection between that and water quality is in many cases fairly apparent and easily demonstrated,” said Bob Sussman, a senior policy adviser for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “So we think we are concerned with environmental impacts that are real, that are serious, and are not simply theoretical.”

In the short-term, EPA said it plans to strengthen its review of Clean Water Act permits for mining that are currently handled by various state regulatory authorities. And as a long-range objective, EPA said it would consider “revisions to how surface coal mining activities are evaluated, authorized and regulated” under that law.

But administration officials conceded that there are many questions yet to be answered about where mountaintop removal regulation is headed.

For example, Interior Department officials said they hoped to convince a federal court to throw out Bush administration changes to the stream “buffer zone” rule, a move they had already announced more than a month ago. But on Thursday, they added that they have not yet decided whether in reverting to a 1983 version of the rule they will apply that rule to the footprint of valley fills — a move that, if adopted, would ban those fills in perennial and intermittent streams.

“The guidance is still being developed,” said Peter Mali, spokesman for Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. “That’s where we are. It’s unclear what the guidance will and will not address.”

Also, a key part of the Obama plan is to halt the use of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers streamlined Clean Water Act permitting review process.

But U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin has already thrown out that process, at least in Southern West Virginia, and — in contrast to Thursday’s announcement — the Obama Justice Department earlier this week filed a formal notice that it plans to appeal Goodwin’s ruling.

Sutley called the appeal notice a “procedural filing,” and said there have been “no policy decisions made with respect to that case.”

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Written by bearmarketnews

June 12, 2009 at 9:22 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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