This Tuesday, coal industry lobbyists, environmental activists, and concerned citizens will gather at the Knoxville Convention Center for one of six public meetings held across Appalachia to discuss increasing the difficulty with which coal-mining companies acquire permits to push fill material (i.e., remnants of mountains) into creeks, streams, and other bodies of water.
As one of three simultaneous public forums taking place that day in Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia, the meeting is an opportunity for the Army Corps. of Engineers to receive comments on proposed changes to a permit process that could hold significant repercussions for the coal industry in East Tennessee. And should the proposal move forward, it would also serve as another indication that the Obama administration, which recently put a hold on 79 mining permits, is serious about limiting the amount of surface and mountaintop mining done in the region.
"It's a really big deal," says Chris Irwin, environmental activist and head of United Mountain Defense. "Just the pure mechanics of this will slow down the permits they're rushing through."
The Corps of Engineers is considering suspending a permit known as Nationwide Permit 21, or NWP 21, until 2012, when it would expire. Dating back to 1982 and reissued every five years since, NWP 21 pertains to the Clean Water Act and authorizes the discharge of dredged or fill material into waters for surface coal mining activities.
NWP 21 basically acts as a blanket permit, streamlining the process by which coal companies are allowed to dump fill in valleys. Deborah Murray, a senior attorney with the Charlottesville, Va.-based Southern Environmental Law Center, a non-profit, public-interest firm, says the permit was originally intended to be used only if environmental effects were minimal.
"And that's clearly not been the case," Murray says.
But the Corps' proposal, published in the Federal Register in July, notes that since 1982, surface mining activities in Appalachia have "become more prevalent and have resulted in greater environmental impacts.... Since the late 1990s, there have been increases in concerns regarding the individual and cumulative adverse effects of those activities on the human environment and the natural resources in this region, including streams and other aquatic resources."
Dawn Coppock, legislative director of the Lindquist-Environmental Appalachian Fellowship, a religious environmental group, puts it more bluntly: "Mountaintop-removal coal mining was originally designed to be the exception, not the rule. And so when there's a blanket permit that says, ‘You really just have to do a little window dressing and then you get your permit,' then you've made it the rule."
If suspended, coal companies would have to apply for individual permits, taking into account singular aspects of each location's topography and water resources and the potential impact on the environment and community. This would greatly reduce the rate of mountaintop mining and inject greater transparency and public scrutiny into the permit process. While it would not stop mountaintop mining, it would slow it down considerably.
Coal and mining trade groups have argued that suspending NWP 21 will result in less investment for the region, which could lead to job losses for miners. "The concern is that [suspending NWP 21] will further delay permits and make this part of the country less attractive for investment," says Carol Raulston, senior vice president of communications at the National Mining Association. "And so I think people are concerned about that and how it's going to affect jobs."
But Phil Smith, director of communications for United Mine Workers of America, says it's impossible to know whether jobs will be gained or lost from the change. "Will [suspending NWP 21] necessarily lead to fewer jobs? Not necessarily," Smith says. "I don't believe you can say that, because companies that want to go get that coal will then follow whatever rules they have to follow."
Furthermore, critics say the jobs argument is largely undermined by the fact that mountaintop mining is far less labor intensive than deep mining or even strip mining. "MTR does not make jobs for men. It makes jobs for dynamite," says Coppock, whose organization is working to change state laws in order to prohibit mountaintop mining.
Still, the environmental community remains cautiously optimistic. Murray calls the action a "good first step" but says legislation needs to go further so that all valley fill permits are rejected rather than simply made more cumbersome to obtain. She, Irwin, and Coppock say they are not certain what the Corps will decide to do.
"I'm skeptical of government agencies doing right thing," Irwin says. "But the fact is they're talking about it. If they actually go forward and do this thing, it's going to slow the whole strip-mining industry down."