Bush Plan Streamlines Strip Mine Permits

The Bush administration on Thursday announced a plan to allow states to streamline the way coal operators obtain new strip mine permits.

The Bush administration on Thursday announced a plan to allow states to streamline the way coal operators obtain new strip mine permits.

Under the plan, state mining regulators and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could adopt plans for a single permit application to replace the myriad documents companies must currently submit.

Critics said that the move would give states and the U.S. Office of Surface Mining more power and erode the authority of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which has been more critical of mountaintop removal mining.

But Bush administration officials said their plan would benefit not only the mining industry, but also the public and citizens who want to police mining practices.

"Our intent is to create a collaborative review process with early, close coordination among the agencies," said OSM Director Jeff Jarrett. "We want to improve the timeliness and clarity of the permitting process and to enhance communication among all involved."

OSM, EPA, the corps and the Fish and Wildlife Service jointly announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, which allows the streamlined permit process.

The 11-page agreement puts in place a proposal the agencies made when they released a draft study of mountaintop removal in May 2003.

But, the final version of that study -- meant to examine mining's impacts and propose tougher regulations -- is not expected until 2006 or perhaps 2007, according to OSM budget documents submitted to Congress this week.

"They are taking an action before they finish their study," said Joan Mulhern, a lawyer with Earthjustice, a Washington-based environmental group. "It's jumping the gun."

Currently, coal operators must obtain several permits from state regulators, who enforce the federal strip mine law, and the corps, which handles fill permits under the Clean Water Act.

OSM is supposed to make sure states do a good job complying with strip mine rules, and EPA has oversight over the corps' enforcement of water pollution rules.

Under the policy announced Thursday, state mining regulators and the corps could get together and write a plan for companies to submit just one permit application that would provide information for all of the permits required.

The policy would allow companies to go through just one public review of draft permits, instead of numerous comment periods and hearings that can currently be required.

"It would be one process," said OSM spokesman Mike Gauldin. "You would still have to have the different permits, but you could compile the information for all of them at once."

Mulhern noted that the policy does not appear to include the kind of EPA oversight over the corps that the Clean Water Act intends.

"The MOU weakens the role of the federal agencies most responsible for protecting Appalachia's streams and communities of people and species that depend on them: the EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," Mulhern said.

"Sadly, EPA and Fish and Wildlife are willingly giving up their role as watchdogs," Mulhern said. "They signed off on this plan to give more say in the permitting process to the agency that most wants to weaken or remove all environmental restrictions on mountaintop removal coal mining."

Benjamin H. Grumbles, assistant administrator for water at EPA, said, "This MOU offers a framework for better coordination and information-sharing for agencies reviewing proposed surface coal mining activities.

"We believe this MOU is an important step in improving the permit decision-making process," Grumbles said.

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News