General environmental permits are for small, routine disturbances or discharges that pose little risk to the public and that require the same basic precautions: controlling runoff from excavating a small site, for example, or disposing of dry- cleaning chemicals.
Kentucky is seeking to renew its general permit for the coal industry — including mountaintop surface mines that disturb hundreds of acres, pollute streams already impaired by earlier mining and threaten aquatic life and human health.
The state is proposing to tighten some permitting rules to protect water and hoping to appease the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, while loosening other rules.
A more fundamental question is whether there even should be a general permit for surface mining.
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At a hearing in 2012, an EPA official said Kentucky had allowed 2,500 new and existing mining projects to go forward under the general permit in the prior three years, while issuing just 87 individual permits for surfacing-mining operations in the same period.
Individual permits allow greater scrutiny of mining plans and impacts and — very important — much more public involvement in permitting decisions.
At a time when so many people — including Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers — are working so hard to create new economic opportunities in Eastern Kentucky, protecting the region's water and other natural assets, its livability, small towns and people is more important than ever.
What happens on the front end of the permitting process is all-important in Kentucky because the state cannot be counted on to enforce permit conditions against the coal industry.
The evidence of non-enforcement is overwhelming. The most attention-grabbing was Kentucky allowing coal companies to cut, paste and submit to state regulators the exact same water monitoring numbers, month after month, year after year, until environmental groups blew the whistle on that particular enforcement charade.
Hundreds of other examples scar mountains, including people and places flooded out because the state enabled shoddy and dangerous reclamation practices. The state has underfunded coal industry enforcement, failed to consider the cumulative effects on water before issuing mining permits and overridden its own hearing officer to keep the dozers grinding.
Even if EPA officials who must decide whether to renew Kentucky's general permit like some of the proposed revisions, such as the first limits on how much selenium mines may release into streams, lax enforcement will reduce the new standards to just words and numbers on paper.
The general permit must be renewed every five years; Kentucky's expires July 31.
The EPA has taken tons of unfair flak for the collapse of Eastern Kentucky coal jobs when market forces are the real culprit. It's hard to ask a federal agency that depends on Congress for funding to go out on a limb yet again to protect Kentucky's water and people when state regulators are happy to sacrifice them to what amounts to a coal industry fire sale.
West Virginia's coal industry out-produces Kentucky's without a general permit.
And the EPA has a duty to protect water and the future, even if it means vetoing coal's general permit in Kentucky.