USEPA Increases Permitting Requirements for Surface Coal Mining Projects

This post was written by Mark Mustian.

On April 1, 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) published on their website a new guidance document on improving USEPA reviews of Appalachian surface coal mining operations. As we noted in our blog over a year ago, changes were likely coming to the practice of mountain-top mining. The guidance documents sets forth the standards which will be followed when evaluating the issuance of permits under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act for the discharge of dredged or fill material during surface mining operations. USEPA has identified the following standards which must be met for any future mining activities.

  • Water quality and environmental integrity must be protected
  • Mining projects must avoid and minimize environmental impacts
  • Mining impacts must be effectively mitigated
  • Water quality and biological parameters must be monitored

The standard which will likely have the most significant impact is the protection of water quality. USEPA is proposing to evaluate the impact of a project based upon an increase in conductivity in the stream. They are setting general standards which must be met for any future projects. USEPA has found that mountain-top mining causes significant and persistent increases in dissolved chemical ion levels downstream from the mining, and these increases reach levels which are acutely toxic to aquatic organisms. In conjunction with the release of the guidance document, USEPA has released a report which assesses the state of the science on the environmental impacts of mountain-top mines and valley fills on streams in the Central Appalachian Coalfields.

The guidance is intended to become effective immediately on an interim basis. However, USEPA will be publishing the guidance in the Federal Register for comment. Based upon the comments its receives, USEPA will decide whether to modify the guidance document.

The guidance document, the report on environmental impacts of mountain-top mining, and other associated documents are available here.

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