On October 16, 2009, EPA drew a line in the sand regarding mountaintop mining. With regard to the Spruce No. 1 Service Mine Permit located in Logan County, West Virginia, EPA informed Arch Coal, Inc. that it was beginning the process that could result in the rescission of its Clean Water Act permit. Although the mine had a validly-issued permit from the Corps of Engineers, EPA believes that it has broad authority to veto the Corps' issued permit if it finds that serious water quality damage may occur and that there are methods to avoid such damage. In the words of William Early, the acting regional administrator for EPA in Region III:
We recognize the issued permit contains several provisions that may be intended to address water quality and mitigation based upon information and data available at the time [of the issuance of the Clean Water Act Section 404 permit]. However, in light of new data and information since permit issuance, EPA remains concerned with much of the analysis set forth in your letter, particularly as it relates to the potential for adverse water quality impacts, further avoidance and minimization measures, the potential for accumulative impacts, and identification and enforceability of success criteria for mitigation.
Mr. Early’s concern, as stated in the letter, is that the operation of the mine “may result in unacceptable adverse impacts to fish and wildlife resources.” He noted that the project allows for the construction of six valley fills for placement of excess spoil material generated through the surface coal mining activities and that there were only minimally acceptable methods to minimize impacts to aquatic resources. In EPA’s view, “there is the potential for [the mine’s] associated discharges to cause further stream degradation.” Early also noted that the existing permit fails to contain adequate measures to mitigate environmental damage and does not set out what procedure would be appropriate if water-quality impacts would happen to occur.
The action of EPA is notable in several respects:
• It is the first time that EPA has threatened to rescind a permit for a project that had been previously authorized.
• Since 1989, only one other project has received a Section 404(c) veto from EPA.
• Prior to 1989, a total of eleven projects have received a veto, none of which involved mining.
Additionally, it is interesting to note that EPA's review is purportedly based on "new data and information since permit issuance," a process that took almost ten years. Some might wonder wherther it is new evidence or a new administration that is driving the review and, if it is the latter, what impact will it have on business to know that the fundamental rules of the game (such as revoking already issued permits) can be changed every four or eight years?
Though environmentalists may look on the EPA action as an indicator that the EPA under Obama is going to be much more aggressive against mountaintop mining, perhaps this is not really the best test case for that proposition. This site was, after all, one of the very few sites that even the Bush-era EPA was reluctant to give a glowing review. In June of 2006, during the comment period for the permit for the Spruce Mine, the site received a ranking of “EC-2,” which equates to “Environmental Concerns and Insufficient Information.” Further, in its statement, EPA "emphasizes that the Spruce No. 1 represents an unusual set of circumstances we do not expect to be repeated again."
While it is a significant first step, what action is taken by this EPA for the remaining seventy-eight mountaintop mining permits will be much more telling.