Groups decry coal permit after EPA decision

Environmental groups are fuming after learning that expansion of a controversial mountaintop removal coal mine in Eastern Kentucky was approved the day after the Environmental Protection Agency said it was going to review such permits.

The permit for the International Coal Group's Thunder Ridge Surface Mine in Leslie County was approved Wednesday by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office in Louisville. The permit had previously been granted, then suspended after environmentalists challenged it in court.

On Tuesday, the EPA released two letters to the Corps that raised questions about a mine permit in Pike County and another in West Virginia. In a move that was widely seen as a crackdown on surface mining, the EPA also said it would review other permits pending before the Corps.

"The Thunder Ridge mine site is exactly the type of mining operation the EPA signaled they were concerned about this week," said Judith Petersen of the Kentucky Waterways Alliance.

She wrote to President Obama on Friday, asking him to review the permit. A copy was sent to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

In her letter, Petersen said there was "no evidence" that the Corps had examined the cumulative impact on water quality from expanding the mine.

Carol Labashosky, a spokeswoman for the Corps, said cumulative impacts were considered, and the "footprint" of valley fills and settling ponds reduced.

Petersen also said that EPA officials in Atlanta had told the waterways group that they were in Louisville this week talking about permits, and were "caught off guard by the ICG permit issuance."

Spokeswomen for the EPA in Atlanta and Washington said they could not respond to that charge Friday.

Labashosky said the EPA had a list of all pending permits, but did not express concerns about Thunder Ridge.

The permit was granted in December 2007, then suspended after questions were raised. ICG spent a year conducting studies before refiling the permit application last December, Labashosky said.

Ira Gamm, an ICG vice president, released a statement that said the company had hired experts to study "the real effect of mining on the Middle Fork of the Kentucky River."

The mine has been operating since the early 1990s. Environmentalists have said that the new permit would allow the mine to expand by 980 acres, to a total of 4,400 acres.