Washington — The Obama administration wants tougher environmental reviews for coal companies that mine the Appalachians by blasting off mountaintops and discarding the rubble in stream valleys.
The administration plans to announce Thursday a proposal to eliminate the expedited reviews that have made it easier for mining companies to get approval for mountaintop mining.
The proposal is part of an agreement between three federal agencies that will lead to a series of changes to boost federal oversight and environmental screening of the practice.
Nancy Sutley, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the Interior Department, Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers will establish clear standards that will ensure the environment, economy and health of Appalachia are adequately protected.
Mining waste dumped into waterways can diminish water quality for fish and other aquatic organisms, and taint sources of drinking water.
“We need to give the right amount of scrutiny to these activities,” Sutley said.
President Barack Obama, while campaigning for the White House, expressed concern about the mountaintop mining, saying at one point it was tearing up the Appalachian Mountains.
His administration has already cast a more critical eye on the process than its predecessor, which was accused of granting permits with little scrutiny. In March, the EPA announced it would more take a closer look at about 150 mountaintop mining permits pending before the Army Corps of Engineers to ensure they will not harm streams and wetlands.
The agency objected to some projects but has said dozens would likely proceed.
Then, in April, the Interior Department asked a federal judge to vacate a Bush rule that makes it easier to dump mining waste near waterways.
On Thursday, the Obama administration will take another step by proposing to eliminate a short cut in place since 1982 that allows mining companies proposing similar projects to get a general permit under the Clean Water Act, rather than being evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
About 30 percent of mountaintop removal projects are permitted under the general permit to discharge waste into streams, according to administration officials.
Mountaintop mines in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee produce nearly 130 million tons of coal each year, or about 14 percent of the coal that produces electricity. It also employs about 14,000 people with high-paying jobs.
The agreement to be announced Thursday will address those concerns, too, officials said, by having federal agencies work together to diversify and strengthen the regional economy, including the development of clean energy jobs.