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The guidance largely mirrors suggestions made by the Government Accountability Office in February on the general lack of oversight for surface and mountaintop mining operations (clik here for link to article).
As part of the action, the EPA is creating a permit tracking website so that the public can determine the status of mining permits subject to the EPA-U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Enhanced Coordination Procedure (ECP).
The guidance clarifies existing requirements of the Section 402 and 404 Clean Water Act permitting programs that apply to pollution from surface coal mining operations in streams and wetlands. The guidance details the agency's responsibilities and how the agency uses its Clean Water Act (CWA) authorities to ensure that future mining will not cause significant environmental, water quality and human health impacts.
The EPA has identified a range of conductivity (a measure of the level of salt in the water) of 300 to 500 microSiemens per centimeter. The maximum benchmark conductivity of 500 microSiemens per centimeter is a measure of salinity that is roughly five times above normal levels. The conductivity levels identified in the clarifying guidance are intended to protect 95 percent of aquatic life and fresh water streams in central Appalachia.
"We will continue to work with all stakeholders to find a way forward that follows the science and the law," said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. "Getting this right is important to Americans who rely on affordable coal to power homes and businesses, as well as coal communities that count on jobs and a livable environment, both during mining and after coal companies move to other sites." In a press release, the EPA estimated that almost 2,000 miles of Appalachian headwater streams have been buried by mountaintop coal mining.
The agency is also showing their work, making available two scientific reports prepared by its Office of Research and Development (ORD). One summarizes the aquatic impacts of mountaintop mining and valley fills. The second report establishes a scientific benchmark for unacceptable levels of conductivity (a measure of water pollution from mining practices) that threaten stream life in surface waters. These reports are being published for public comment and submitted for peer review to the EPA Science Advisory Board.
The EPA will solicit public comments on the new guidance. The guidance will be effective immediately on an interim basis. The agency will decide whether to modify the guidance after consideration of public comments and the results of the SAB technical review of the EPA scientific reports.
The EPA's guidance offers recommendations to its regions on the application of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to surface coal mining projects permitted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps is separately announcing plans for rulemaking to expand the scope of NEPA review.
The documents are available at www.epa.gov/owow/wetlands/guidance/mining.html
Guidance for field officesThe EPA also issued comprehensive guidance clarifying the standards that its regional offices should apply in permitting reviews of Appalachian surface coal mining projects under the Clean Water Act (CWA). This guidance directs EPA field staff to coordinate with their federal and state regulatory partners to strengthen the environmental review of new Appalachian surface coal mining projects and to improve protection of the communities' local water and environment. More specifically, the guidance:
· Incorporates the latest scientific information in clarifying how CWA permits should assure compliance with existing water quality standards to protect the use of streams by communities and to ensure healthy aquatic life.
· Clarifies how CWA requirements apply to the disposal of mining overburden in streams to reduce the size and number of valley fills, to limit water quality contamination of streams near mining operations, and to prevent significant environmental degradation of streams and wetlands.
· Improves opportunities for the voices of adversely affected Appalachian communities to be heard in the process of reviewing proposed new mining operations.