Taking aim at mountaintop removal mining, this week, the Obama administration announced a new effort to strengthen federal oversight of the practice and to punish mining companies who fail to protect the environment. The new policy will directly impact mountaintop coal mining in the six Appalachian states of Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

A top administration official told reporters, June 11, that while the practice of removing mountaintops and discarding the waste in neighboring valleys in order to extract coal and other natural resources remains legal, it does have real negative effects on drinking water or local animal life.

Mountaintop removal coal mining produces large amounts of waste that is usually deposited in adjacent valleys and streams. Academic studies have revealed that the waters downstream from valley fills are degraded. Plant and animal life can be irreparably harmed, environmental activists point out.

White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Suttley said, ‘This is a practice that we believe does have serious environmental impacts, however, it is a practice that is allowed under current federal law.’

Bob Sussman, EPA Senior Policy Counsel, added that the Obama administration’s policy will be to study closely the impact of mountaintop removal on local wildlife and environments and to work with mining companies to change their practices in order to reduce harm caused. ‘If that doesn’t happen, we at EPA have the ability to veto the permit and the project won’t go forward,’ he said.

The Bush administration, Sussman charged, failed to adopt a rigorous oversight of mountaintop removal. Under the Obama administration protection of the environment is a top priority. ‘If there are environmental impacts that are potentially severe, we’re not going to hesitate to do what we’re authorized to do to address those impacts and reduce them,’ Sussman added.

The new policy the EPA, the Department of Interior and the Army Corps of Engineers will join forces to implement several actions to accomplish the goal. Tougher requirements will be imposed on companies that seek permits from the federal government to use the mountaintop removal process. The administration will no longer allow a mining company to use blanket nationwide permits to launch mountaintop mining projects. Each project will require individual permits.

Federal authorities will also work with state agencies to toughen environmental standards. Clean-up projects for streams and rivers impacted by the removal process will be boosted. In addition, federal agencies are planning to improve regulations that oversee clean water and land and species conservation.

“Stronger reviews and protections will safeguard the health of local waters, and thousands of acres of watersheds in Appalachia,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. “Getting this right is important to coalfield communities that count on a livable environment, both during mining and after coal companies move to other sites.”

The Obama administration stated that its top priority is to enforce environmental protection laws in a way that is sensitive to economic concerns. Administration officials consulted with industry leaders, labor unions and local communities in arriving at this decision. Further, the Obama administration plans to work with local communities affected by the decision to help diversify their economies.

Environmental groups met the announcement with cautious support. ‘While we are encouraged to see the Obama administration taking additional steps to increase scrutiny of mountaintop removal coal mining, the only way to end the devastation in Appalachia is to quickly reverse the Bush administration’s rule making it legal to fill streams with mining waste,’ said Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope. ‘The true test of these new policies and of President Obama’s legacy on this issue will be whether they change the terrible situation on the ground in Appalachia.’