Environmentalists want feds to take over Virginia coal mine permitting

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups said March 7 that Virginia’s Division of Mined Land Reclamation (DMLR), which grants water permits for coal mines in the state, has continuously failed to notify the public when it grants certain mountaintop removal strip mining permits.

The DMLR is the state agency in charge of carrying out parts of the federal Clean Water Act that relate to pollution from mountaintop removal mining, the environmental groups said. The agency is required by federal law, before it grants a permit, to inform residents that a permit process has begun. The agency has failed to do so, the groups said.

“Despite multiple attempts by advocates to urge the DLMR to change course, Virginia has failed in its responsibility to uphold this portion of the Clean Water Act,” the groups said. “In order to protect the public participation rights of residents affected by Virginia’s mishandling of these protections, the Sierra Club, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards and Appalachian Mountain Advocates have asked the Environmental Protection Agency to strip Virginia of the ability to grant Clean Water Act discharge permits for surface mines, effectively ending Virginia’s ability to allow mountaintop removal mining to move forward.”

In August 2011 Appalachian Mountain Advocates requested to be placed on a list of people and organizations informed when pollution permits for surface mines are requested. The DMLR replied that no such list exists despite requirements in the Clean Water Act that require the agency to maintain such a list, the groups said. The coalition of organizations is asking the EPA to take control of the water permitting process in Virginia.

“Communities badly affected by mining are being muzzled by sheer negligence,” said Glen Besa, Director of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. He asked rhetorically if Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy regulates the coal industry or does the coal industry run DMME, which grants mine permits, which are different from water permits for mine projects. “The agency’s failure to meet public participation requirements suggests to me the latter,” Besa added about who runs the agency.

“The Virginia Department of Mines Minerals and Energy public notification system is completely inadequate and leaves people in the dark when it comes to mining permits,” said Matt Helper, Water and Enforcement Organizer for the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. “Furthermore, freedoms of information act requests are prohibitively expensive due to inefficiencies at the DMME. Other states, such as West Virginia and Kentucky, allow for basic mine permit information to be found online. Virginia permit system needs to be brought into the 21st century.”

Environmental groups have fought for years in court and at the regulatory level, with some success, for limits on mountaintop removal coal mining, which produces much of the steam coal in Central Appalachia that is burned by power generators. Notable is that they tend to use the term “mountaintop removal” for a surface coal mine of any major size, while technically the coal industry and mine permitting officials only apply the term to a mine where the top of a mountain is actually removed. Many larger contour mines that environmentalists also hate work around the sides of a mountain and don’t actually take the top off.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.