NEW YORK Mining companies accused the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday of ignoring America's need for affordable energy and hurting workers in a poor region of the country by delaying permits for proposed surface, or "mountaintop," mines in Appalachia.
The decision that all 79 pending permits must undergo additional evaluation by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, because they pose a potential hazard to water, threatens job security in parts of Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio that depend heavily on coal mining, the miners said.
But environmental groups welcomed the decision and called on the Obama administration to reverse rules that allow surface mines and to enforce clean air and water legislation.
"EPA's hit-list was compiled by people in Washington who are entirely insulated from the consequences of their actions and far removed from the families and communities affected by them," said Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Caylor.
His Ohio association counterpart Mike Carey accused the EPA of "playing with people's livelihoods. The implications of their delaying tactics will be felt throughout this state's economy."
And Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said the people of his state were incredulous. "They don't understand why Washington is willing to kill off good paying jobs when our economy is still on the ropes and the unemployment rate is still unacceptably high," he said.
In contrast, Mary Anne Hitt, Deputy Director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, praised the EPA's move, saying it hoped the Obama administration would take more action toward ending mountaintop mining.
"An enhanced review of each of these pending permits will surely prove that this most destructive form of coal mining is incompatible with clean water."
She wants the EPA "to reverse the Bush-era rule changes that allowed coal companies to dump waste into waterways.
"We call on the Obama administration to reinstate the original intent of the Clean Water Act and to prevent mining waste from being used as fill material."
The issue pits coal miners, who argue it is more economical to dig into mountainsides than sink underground shafts, against environmentalists, who accuse the companies of dumping waste and polluting rivers and streams.
In February, a U.S. Court of Appeals overturned a lower court ruling that had banned surface mining -- which basically slices the top off hills and mountains -- in West Virginia.
The appeal had been brought by Massey Energy, one of the Top Four U.S. coal miners, and the West Virginia Coal Association. Surface mines account for about one-third of West Virginia coal and half of Kentucky's, while coal burned in power plants produces about half of America's electricity.
In a press release, the EPA said Assistant Administrator for Water Peter Silva finalized the list of 79 Appalachian surface coal mining permits requiring additional review and coordination under the Clean Water Act (CWA).
The permits represent all backlogged surface coal mining projects under review by the Army Corps of Engineers, it said.
"After a careful evaluation of these surface coal mining projects, EPA determined that each of them, as currently proposed, is likely to result in significant harm to water quality and the environment and are therefore not consistent with requirements of the CWA," the agency said.
The National Mining Association, which represents coal mining companies, condemned the "enhanced review" process. "We cannot plan for the economic future of our operations absent a workable, transparent process that provides certainty," said association President Hal Quinn.
"EPA's answer of more delay and study is at cross-purposes with our nation's need for affordable energy, investments and secure jobs."
(Reporting by Steve James, editing by Gerald E. McCormick)