The Army Corps of Engineers announced Thursday it has suspended the use of Nationwide Permit 21 for coal mines in Kentucky and five other Appalachian states.
The permit, which allows a coal mine to make minor impacts on streams and water sheds without the heavier scrutiny of an individual permit, has been frequently criticized by environmentalists.
The agency said the suspension is effective immediately in Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. The permit will be available elsewhere.
Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett said the decision "definitely makes a bad process worse for Kentucky coal mining" and removes one of the ways the Corps regulates the industry.
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"While the full implications will have to be discerned, it will clearly make it more difficult to mine coal in the commonwealth," Bissett said.
During the suspension, mines that will discharge fill material into "waters of the United States" will have to get individual permits. That will mean increased public involvement in evaluating permits.
"That's good," said Rick Handshoe of Floyd County, an activist with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. "They need to be done on an individual basis simply because every place is different ... . That was just giving them a blanket permit.
"We've learned that the law is really contained in the permit. We talk about enforcement, but you can't enforce something that's not in the permit."
The Nationwide Permit 21 has been used for surface coal mines since 1982.
"We're living in an evolving world. Before 2002, there was no such thing as stream mitigation. Well, we're learning a lot about the environment" since then, said Lee Anne Devine, chief of the South Section, Louisville branch of the Army Corps of Engineers.
A year ago, the Corps, the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency issued a memorandum outlining a plan to reduce mountaintop-removal and other types of surface mining. As part of that effort, the Corps agreed to consider modifying Nationwide 21 permits.
"Although its scale and efficiency has enabled the mining of once-inaccessible coal seams, this mining practice often stresses the natural environment and impacts the health and welfare of surrounding human communities," the memo said.
Hearings were held to gather input on Nationwide Permit 21. About 4,500 people attended the one in Pike ville, including elected officials, and the majority of speakers were against suspending the permit.
Four Nationwide 21 permits were pending in Appalachia, three in Kentucky and one in West Virginia, the Corps said. A fifth permit was withdrawn by the company, a Corps spokesman said Thursday. Those mining companies will be contacted about applying for individual permits.
"This is another example of this administration's targeted war on Appalachian coal," Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, said, calling the decision "unfair and unwarranted."
Corps officials said the number of Nationwide 21 permits goes through a normal cycle of applications and approvals because the permit is considered for renewal every five years. About 70 have been verified since 2007, Corps spokesman Doug Garman said. The next renewal will be in 2012 for areas outside of Appalachia.
"However, an undetermined number of those mines may have already been completed and thus not 'active,' " he wrote in an e-mail message a few months ago. "In addition, some of the permits that were verified may have never started, the verification is about to expire, and probably no work will be done under the permit."