Using a proposed mine in Kentucky and one in West Virginia as examples, the federal Environmental Protection Agency signaled Tuesday that it is cracking down on mountaintop removal coal mining.
The agency released letters it sent the day before to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that questioned permits requested for those mines.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said she had "considerable concern regarding the environmental impact these projects would have on fragile habitats and streams."
She also said the EPA will review other mining permits, using "the best science" and following "the letter of the law." That could delay and cause revisions to those permits, but would not affect existing mines. After erroneous news reports that EPA was "halting" permits, the agency issued a statement late Tuesday that said it anticipated most pending permits would not raise environmental concerns, and promised to work quickly to resolve those that did.
Environmentalists hailed the action as a move toward better protections for streams and people in the coalfields, and a sharp break from the eight years of the Bush administration.
"I think it's very positive — just the kind of thing the EPA should have been saying," said Joe Lovett, executive director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment.
"I'm really glad the Obama administration is sticking by his campaign promise and basing its decisions on sound science," said Teri Blanton of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.
But Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said that the new bar the EPA appears to be setting could affect all surface mining, not just mountaintop removal operations.
If that happens, he said, it could put 6,000 Eastern Kentucky miners out of work, creating a ripple effect that could mean the loss of 23,000 more jobs in an economy that already is suffering.
Caylor also said the EPA is using "a vague water quality standard" to suggest that mines are violating the Clean Water Act.
A virtual moratorium on new permits already is threatening the industry, he said. "We're going to have companies start shutting down."
The EPA's primary concern is "valley fills," where mountain streams are covered with rock and dirt that have been blasted away to reach seams of coal.
The coal industry argues that most of the streams are merely ephemeral or intermittent channels where water flows only after a rain, and that the overburden from mining has to go somewhere.
But, in the case of Central Appalachian Mining's Big Branch Surface Mine in Pike County, the EPA said, covering nearly 19,000 feet of those occasional waterways could harm permanent streams below.
Effects would be more severe at the proposed mine in Logan County, W.Va. The EPA said "the extensive cumulative and other impacts" of the proposed mine are so severe that the agency would consider a rare use of its authority to veto the permit.
Tom FitzGerald, executive director of the Kentucky Resources Council, said the EPA's actions were a clear indication of a policy change.
For years, he said, the Corps has been approving mines that already had a federal mining permit that considered only whether the mine would be stable.
As far as enforcement of the Clean Water Act went, FitzGerald said, "no one was minding the shop."
Relatively few permits have been granted since March 2007, when a federal judge overturned several, saying they needed more work. But last month, an appeals court overturned that ruling, giving the Corps the green light to approve permits without more extensive review.
Now the EPA is stepping forward and saying it will work with the Corps on reviewing permits.
The result won't mean an end to mountaintop removal or other surface mining, FitzGerald said. But, he said, it could mean that mines will be designed to have the smallest possible footprint.
In areas that have been mined before, he said, mines ultimately could be designed with no valley fills.
"The days of just shearing the top of mountains and filling valleys are definitely over," FitzGerald said.
What is needed now, FitzGerald said, is a new director of the federal Office of Surface Mining who "gets up every day and says 'How can we do what Congress intended to do? How can we fully protect the rights of people downstream and downhill?' "
Rick Handshoe, a Kentuckians for the Commonwealth member who lives in Hueysville, said there are nine valley fill permits in his neighborhood and three more proposed nearby.
"I was hoping they would look at what's happening to the people and the water," he said. "It's a victory that they are even looking at the impacts of these valley fills. If they look at it they will see what's going on."