Federal regulators will take a closer look at 49 requests for surface coal-mining permits in Eastern Kentucky, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Friday.
The permits are among 79 in four Appalachian states slated for extra review under a push by the Obama administration to curb environmental damage from such mines.
The EPA said it wants to make certain the proposed mines won't cause water pollution and violate the Clean Water Act. An initial review concluded all 79 probably would affect water quality and require additional study, the EPA said.
Twenty-three of the mines are in West Virginia; six are in Ohio; and one is in Tennessee.
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The action targets a practice known as mountaintop removal mining. The highly efficient mining method involves blasting away mountaintops to expose multiple coal seams and, in most cases, filling nearby valleys with rock placed atop intermittent streams.
Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said the enhanced reviews are frustrating and causing a lot of uncertainty in the industry. Ultimately, the agency's decision could harm Appalachia's economy, he said, noting 6,000 miners work at Kentucky surface mines.
"There is going to be economic impact in Appalachia on mining," Caylor said.
But Lauren McGrath, an official with the Kentucky Sierra Club, saw the announcement as good news that she hopes will result in more stringent enforcement of the federal clean water act.
"We see it as a small victory and as a step one," she said.
Ultimately, the Sierra Club and other groups would like to see the coal companies barred from filling stream areas with excess rock and dirt generated from mining.
Environmentalists complained during the Bush administration that the corps and EPA didn't do enough to require coal companies to protect water quality during mountaintop mining.
Coal operators don't know what to expect of the extra reviews or how much time the process will take, Caylor said.
For some permits, the additional review adds to delays of about a year that already have occurred because of lawsuits, he said. Without the holdup, the permits were ready to be released.
The permits ultimately could be allowed to go forward, could require significant revisions or could be denied.
Mountaintop mines in the states where the practice is most common — West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee — produce about 130 million tons of coal each year, or about 14 percent of the coal used to produce electricity in the United States, and employ about 14,000 people.
The EPA said it's going to review the permits in tandem with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under an agreement worked out in June. The corps actually issues the so-called valley fill permits, though the EPA has a say in the process and under President Barack Obama has been doing so more frequently.
Last week, EPA asked the corps to suspend, revoke or modify a permit issued for a West Virginia mine two years ago. U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has asked the EPA to retract the request. Rockefeller said EPA's action creates uncertainty in the coalfields, among other things.
EPA spokeswoman Adora Andy said the agency is sticking by its request.
"We take the senator's concerns seriously but believe that this mine raises unique and serious issues that deserve further consideration by the Army Corps of Engineers," she wrote in an e-mail message.