Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

The Compleat Wetlander: Mountains, Mining and the Clean Water Act

On September 11, 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it had identified 79 proposed surface coal-mining projects in Appalachian states for further, detailed reviews of their pending permits.  The agency said in a press release that the Corps and EPA will work together during this review process to ensure compliance with the Clean Water Act and the protection of this nation’s public health and environment.

One day before the announcement, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it will hold six public hearings on Oct. 13 and 15 to receive public comments on the two proposals related to the use of Nationwide Permit (NWP) 21 in the nation’s Appalachian region. NWP 21 authorizes discharges of dredged or fill material into waters of the United States for surface coal mining activities.

Mountaintop mining is the practice of removing the tops of mountains to harvest coal and filling the valleys with the left over materials (Diagram of Mountaintop Mining (USEPA)
).  The announcement by EPA has received widespread news coverage within the U.S. and abroad.  A number of the news stories highlight support from environmental groups and opposition by some elected officials and the coal mining companies affected by the decisions.  They also touch on the impacts of mountain top mining on water resources, human health and climate.  In addition one story points out that 14,000 jobs are at risk if the mountaintop mining operations are not allowed to continue.

Is this the End for Coal? (In-depth analysis E/The Environmental Magazine)
EPA Identifies 79 Coal Permits for review (Associated Press)
Officials Upset Over Mining Permits (Charleston Daily Mail)
Update 3—U.S. Cracks Down on Mountaintop Coal- Mining Permits (Reuters)
EPA Puts Mountaintop Mining Permits Under Review (Wall Street Journal)
EPA requesting closer review of 79 mountaintop mining permits (Daily Climate News and Analysis)
White House action puts on hold dozens of mountaintop mining permits (

However, it’s worth noting that the Administration’s action was taken under the Clean Water Act.  It does not utilize the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act which also regulates coal mining activities (  In fact the current nominee for the directorship of Office of Surface Mining in the Department of Interior who provides oversight for implementation of SMCRA is receiving criticism from environmental groups.

Breaking News: Suit Cites Chronic Pizarchik Failure:  Millions Call for Office of Surface Mining Nominee to Withdraw
Environmentalists: Obama’s pick for director to oversee coal mining is strongly opposed

And what about the mountains where the mining has been completed and tree-covered mountains have been reclaimed and restored to pasture and grassland?  Well one group is proposing to return them to forests and create jobs at the same time.

The Administration’s decision to review 79 permits is part of a larger strategy to support clean water and clean energy.   As such, the action last week on mountaintop mining is likely to have ramifications extending to other mining operations as the Administration addresses both the definition and the appropriate disposal of fill as well as standards for reclamation of mining sites.  Over time the proposed transition from coal and other fossil fuels to clean energy is likely to require many more changes.

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