US suspends Appalachian permitting system

17th June 2010 By: Liezel Hill

TORONTO (miningweekly.com) – The US Army Corps of Engineers has suspended a mine permitting system in six Appalachian states, in a move that will make it more difficult and time consuming for coal miners to permit new surface operations.

Nationwide Permit 21 (NWP 21), which was introduced to streamline the permitting process for surface coal mining projects, has been immediately suspended in Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

The announcement is the latest in a string of actions by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Corps, aimed at cracking down on mountain-top mining, commonly used in Appalachia, in which the top of a mountain is removed by blasting, to expose underlying coal seams.

Excess rock and soil is often dumped in nearby valleys and streams and critics say the process pollutes rivers and water supplies.

While the suspension is in effect, proposed surface mining projects that will discharge dredged or fill material into US waters will have to apply for Department of the Army approval under the Clean Water Act, through the individual permit process, the Corps said on Thursday.

This will mean increased public involvement and the opportunity for public comment on the individual projects.

The mining industry is “deeply concerned” about the announcement, National Mining Association president Hal Quinn said on Thursday afternoon.

The suspension of NWP 21 threatens jobs, the local economies in Appalachia, as well as the “energy security of the nation”.

"This decision takes us in the wrong direction,” he insisted.

"Today's decision will slow job creation, add further uncertainty to the permitting process and undermine our ability to utilise the nation's most abundant domestic energy resource, coal.”

Quinn also said that the decision was made “over the opposition of thousands of people who voiced their comments at public hearings earlier this year.”

"They were concerned about their jobs, their economic future and the energy security of the nation," he said.

Last year, the US Department of the Army, the Department of the Interior and the EPA agreed to work together to reduce the environmental effects of surface coal mining in Appalachia.

At the time, the Corps agreed to issue a public notice to seek comment on a proposal to modify NWP 21.

Some 6 000 people attended hearings in October 2009, and around 23 000 comments were submitted, the Corps said on Thursday.

Of the “substantive” comments, the arguments were split down the middle between those for and against the modification and supension of the permit, it said.

After reviewing the issue, the Corps decided that the potential  threat to the environment from the operations means that they needed to be reviewed under an individual permit process.