A new permit that will change the way the federal government deals with some surface coal mining permits goes into effect today. The new permit issued by the Army Corps of Engineers has more stringent standards to protect the environment.
When coal operators want a permit for a surface mine, they have two choices. They can try to get a so-called “Nationwide Permit” from the Army Corps of Engineers, or they can go through a more rigorous process and get an individual permit, which involves both the Army Corps and the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Nationwide Permits were ostensibly created for mines that will have minimal impact. Environmental groups often call them “rubber stamps,” suggesting the permits don’t get a sufficient level of scrutiny. The Army Corps disagrees with that characterization.
Jim Townsend is the chief of the Army Corps’ regulatory branch in Louisville. He says the Corps is changing the permit’s restrictions because of the cumulative effects of mining in some regions.
“The Corps is always looking to make adjustments to these permits, and if we feel like, due to the impacts that we’ve issued in the past, if we’re looking at those and feel like okay, we need to put further limits on these Nationwide permits to ensure that we have minimal impact, that’s what happens. And that’s what happened in this case,” he said.
The new permit won’t allow any valley fills—which are created when waste is disposed of in valleys. It will also restrict stream pollution to within half an acre of the mine. It won’t stop an operator from planning on valley fills or more extensive stream pollution—it just means they’ll have to go through the more rigorous individual permit process.
Environmental groups are lauding the changes.
Jim Hecker is the Environmental Enforcement Project Director at Public Justice. He says not allowing valley fills without increased scrutiny is key.
“That’s [the most important] because valley fills have filled several thousand miles of streams in Appalachia,” he said. “And up to now Nationwide 21 has been able to be used for that.”
Kentucky Coal Association president Bill Bissett says he doesn’t believe the new nationwide permits will significantly affect the state’s mining industry.