A new Obama administration plan for more stringent reviews of mountaintop surface-mining permits in Appalachia will reduce environmental damage in an "unprecedented" way, federal officials said Thursday.
The coal industry was not pleased. Bill Caylor of the Kentucky Coal Association said the change could mean more red tape for coal companies and the agencies that regulate them.
But his comments paled by comparison with those of environmentalists, most of whom said the plan doesn't go far enough, fast enough to protect headwater streams from having mining waste dumped in them.
Though he never called for an outright end to mountaintop mining, President Obama has expressed concern about the environmental damage it can cause.
Many environmentalists had hoped that meant he would move quickly to end, or at least severely limit, large-scale surface mining on the steep slopes of Appalachia.
What was proposed Thursday fell far short of that.
"The mountains are still getting blown up, and the streams are still getting buried," said Joan Mulhern, senior legislative attorney for Earthjustice. "Until the White House announces that it will stop the blowing up of mountains and burying of streams, we cannot support their policies, regardless of what process is used to review the mines on a case-by-case basis."
What the administration announced was, she said "essentially rearranging the bureaucratic deck chairs on the disastrous ship that is mountaintop removal."
The administration effort involves mining permits in Kentucky and five other Appalachian states: West Virginia, Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
Administration officials said the initiative has a number of short- and long-term pieces. They include:
■ More detailed environmental reviews of applications for mountaintop-removal permits, accomplished by ending the use of certain permitting rules now in place.
■ More active federal oversight of how states enforce the federal strip-mining law.
■ An effort to return to a 1983 rule that bars dumping rocks and dirt from mining operations within 100 feet of many streams.
Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the new plans were put in place because the administration "has serious concerns about the impacts of mountaintop mining" in Appalachia.
"I think what you will see at the end of this process is fewer environmental impacts associated with these activities," she said.
The Bush administration did away with the 1983 stream-buffer zone rule, but the Obama administration is trying to scrap the Bush rule and return to the old one.
Even with the old rule in place, environmentalists complained that regulators failed to properly enforce it, allowing coal companies to bury hundreds of miles of streams in Kentucky and other areas of Appalachia.
David Hayes, deputy secretary of the federal agency that includes the Office of Surface Mining, acknowledged Thursday in a conference call with reporters that the ban on dumping mining debris near streams had been enforced in an "imperfect manner" in previous administrations.
Expect more stringent application of the rule if the court lets the new administration put the 100-foot buffer zone back in place, he said. "We think it should be applied more strictly than it has been," he said.
He also said an entirely new rule could be developed, a process that would take time.
Caylor, representing the coal association, said the administration's plan to replace so-called "nationwide" permits with more detailed case-by-case reviews will mean that permits for even the least controversial mine will take more time.
"They need to decide what they want in permits and give us consistency so we will know what is expected," he said.
But, for the industry, the news wasn't as bad as it could have been, Caylor said.
"We don't know what to expect," from the Obama administration, he said.
United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil E. Roberts issued a statement that said the union was taken by surprise by the administration's plans and "is very concerned about today's announcement and what these changes will mean for our members, their families and their communities."
The Sierra Club said that while the new plans will end fast-tracking of permits and add tougher mining enforcement, "these new policies alone will not improve conditions in Appalachia unless the administration uses its authority to ... end mountaintop removal."
Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council dashed off a 1,300-word critique that expressed "serious concerns regarding whether the proposed reforms go far enough."
He questioned whether the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers had enough time and staff to evaluate so many backlogged permits, suggesting that some could be approved with inadequate review.
And, he said, the federal Office of Surface Mining "should take a much more significant role in minimizing the footprint of mining."
Judith Petersen of the Kentucky Waterways Alliance said she wasn't sure that the administration could simply ban mountaintop mining without a new federal law.
"But they can and should be enforcing the Clean Water Act and Surface Mining Act — and together these laws can put a stop to most of the valley fills. This has a much wider impact than just mountaintop removal."
Kentucky coalfield activists saw some good news in the administration's plans.
"Maybe this new administration is taking the decision-making from the coal companies and those politicians embedded with them and using sound science as the basis for their decisions," said Carl Shoupe of Harlan County, who is a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.
Administration officials said their increased scrutiny of mining applications will be accompanied by an effort to "diversify and strengthen" the economy in mountain communities.
Jeff Combs, a KFTC member in Perry County, said that idea pleased him.
"There is a history of coal companies not wanting other industry in the area, but we do need some alternative," he said. "It makes a lot of sense that we replace the jobs that will be lost from mining with renewable-energy jobs."