Rahall: EPA drops objection to W.Va. surface mine

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The Environmental Protection Agency has dropped its objections to a permit that would allow a large West Virginia surface mining complex to continue operating, U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall said Monday.

The Democratic congressman said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told him on New Years Eve that the agency will send Patriot Coal Corp.’s application for the Hobet 45 mine to the Army Corps of Engineers this week. The EPA reviews applications; it’s up to the corps to issue Clean Water Act permits allowing operators to bury intermittent streams with excess material removed from surface mines.

Rahall said Patriot negotiated concessions including water-quality monitoring with the EPA to get the permit. A spokeswoman for the St. Louis-based coal company did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

“In my discussion with Lisa Jackson,” Rahall said, “she was highly complimentary of Patriot, the efforts they’ve made to come in compliance and work with the EPA.”

EPA spokeswoman Adora Andy said the agency expects to make a formal announcement about the Hobet permit “in the short term.”

The application is one of 79 held up for extra scrutiny in September as part of the Obama administration’s attempt to curb environmental damage from a mining practice known as mountaintop removal. The EPA said at the time that each permit likely would cause significant damage to water quality and the environment.

The permits would allow mine operators to bury intermittent streams with excess material removed to expose coal seams. Environmental groups including the Sierra Club and the Rainforest Action Committee want Obama to ban the practice, arguing it destroys ancient mountain peaks, fouls water and damages the culture of Appalachia.

The practice is most prevalent in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee and involves scraping and blasting away mountaintops to expose multiple coal seams.

Hobet 45 is located in Boone and Lincoln counties. Patriot’s operations there are among its largest. The Hobet 21 mine, for instance, employed 295 union miners and 30 office workers at the end of September. The mine produced 2.1 million tons of coal from three seams through the first three quarters of 2009 and typically yields up to 4 million tons annually.

The coal industry and other mining supporters argue the practice keeps electricity prices low for millions of Americans in the East and Southeast and provides 14,000 high-paying jobs in Appalachia.

EPA is working through the backlog of permit applications individually, but Rahall said the Patriot agreement may serve as a template for other surface mines.

During the same New Year’s conversation, Rahall said Jackson repeated the agency’s plan to revoke a permit issued in 2007 for another large West Virginia surface mine, Mingo Logan Coal’s Spruce No. 1, which is owned by St. Louis-based Arch Coal Inc.

“I cannot in any stretch of the imagination and have never defended EPA in the revocation,” Rahall said. “There is the possibility that some portions of that may, may, should negotiations be fruitful, be allowed to proceed.”