The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held a formal public hearing Oct. 13 at the East Kentucky Expo Center in Pikeville, Ky., to hear comments on Nationwide Permit (NWP) 21 in the nation’s Appalachian region.
Approximately 3,400 people were in attendance to voice their opinions regarding proposed changes to the surface mine permitting process.
Under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, a permit such as NWP 21 is required to authorize the discharge of fill material into streams or other waters of the United States for surface coal mining activities.
There are currently two proposal actions being reviewed for NWP 21. One proposal is to modify NWP 21 to prohibit its use in the Appalachian areas in Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia until it expires on March 18, 2012; and the other is to suspend NWP 21 to provide an interim means of requiring individual permit reviews in Appalachia, while proposing to undertake the longer-term measure of modifying NWP 21.
"I want you to leave here today hearing two main points," said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Louisville District Commander Col. Keith Landry. "The Chief of Engineers [Lt. Gen. Van Antwerp] has not made a decision yet on the suspension or the modification of the Nationwide Permit 21. He sent me out here to collect feedback that he can use to make his decision. This is democracy in action. This is a chance for everybody that wants to be heard to be heard."
The Corps of Engineers received numerous requests to hold public hearings, and allowed concerned parties to assist in the decision-making for the two proposed actions. As a result, six public hearings were held in cities in or near the coalfield regions in each of these six states, Pikeville being one of these cities.
"This is just as important, even if the chief of engineers does decide to suspend or modify the use of Nationwide Permit 21 for certain coal mining activities, there are still other permits available that can request to be considered for the same activities," Landry said. "So just because he says ‘I don’t want to use this one anymore,’ it doesn’t mean that there are no other options."
The Corps is continuing to collect information and will not make decisions on the proposed suspension or modification actions until after the public hearings, and after the close of the comment period.
Several elected officials were also in attendance at the hearing and spoke in support of the mining industry.
"It’s an embarrassment that we have to be here tonight to defend our hardworking men and women," said Kentucky Sen. Ray Jones (D), who is the grandson of two union coal miners.
Kentucky Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo, a surgeon, compared coal mining to what he experiences in his operating room.
"People look at pictures of a strip mine, and they see a terrible mess," said Mongiardo. "Well, if you come into my operating room, you will also see a terrible mess. But, if you will wait for a little while, what you will see is a small scar. When done right, that is what surface mining leaves, a small scar.
"Now let’s not call it mountaintop removal. Let’s call it what it really is, mountaintop development," said Mongiardo, whose grandfather worked in a Harlan County coal mine after immigrating to the United States. "I work in a hospital built on a mountaintop development; I have flown into airports on mountaintop developments."
The environmental group, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC), also attended the hearing to voice their support for environmentally-sound mining practices.
"KFTC strongly supports the proposal to strengthen the permit process for coal mining valley fills so our water resources will receive the protection they need," said Doug Doerrfeld with the KFTC. "These proposals are the right thing to do."
Fellow KFTC member Mary Love agreed with Doerrfeld.
"We do not want to stop coal mining, we just want it done responsibly," said Love.
Everyone who wanted to speak was given the opportunity; 132 people signed up to make a verbal statement. Many coal miners voiced their concerns of losing their jobs and stressed the nation’s dependence on coal. The environmentalists present voiced their support of NWP 21 and their concerns of protecting the nation’s waterways.
"I take very seriously the responsibility for balancing protection of the environment and ... understanding the role that coal plays in the energy and national security portion of the country," said Landry during his closing remarks. "So, there’s a constant tension there, and believe me, I’m aware of it, and it is one we struggle with every day. It’s hard to do what’s right by everybody involved, and the best I can do is try to maintain the integrity of the process that I am charged with executing."
Comments were accepted until Oct. 26, and no final decision has been made.