The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency yesterday took a rare step against a proposed "mountaintop" coal mine in West Virginia, proposing to block the mine even though it has a federal permit.

The move is one of the most aggressive to come out of the Obama administration's re-examination of mountaintop mining, in which peaks are scraped and blasted away to reach coal seams inside. The EPA has reviewed dozens of permits and approved one large mine in January after environmental improvements were promised.

But, in this case, the agency is threatening to stop the Spruce No. 1 mine in Logan County entirely, or at least stop it from depositing excess rock and rubble in nearby streams.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, the EPA has the power to veto projects that would cause an "unacceptable adverse impact," but it has used that power only 12 times since 1972. It has never used the power in a case where the mine already has a permit.

The EPA will take public comments on the proposal for 60 days and hold a hearing on the proposal in West Virginia.

The EPA says the Spruce mine in southern West Virginia would bury about 7 miles of streams. As toxic chemicals flow downstream from the mine rubble, the agency said, they could harm aquatic life, including one of the richest concentrations of salamanders in the world.

The mine was issued a federal permit in 2007 during the Bush administration, but major mining was delayed by lawsuits by environmental groups. After the Obama White House raised questions about the mine's environmental consequences last year, the EPA began negotiations with Arch Coal, the mine's parent company.

The EPA said yesterday that those negotiations had failed to resolve the impasse.

"Coal, and coal mining, is part of our nation's energy future, and for that reason EPA has made repeated efforts to foster dialogue and find a responsible path forward," Shawn Garvin, EPA's regional administrator for the mid-Atlantic, said in a news release. "But we must prevent the significant and irreversible damage that comes from mining pollution - and the damage from this project would be irreversible."

In a statement, Arch Coal said it was "disappointed" by the decision. "We are evaluating all possible options for relief from the government's actions and intend to vigorously defend the Spruce permit by all legal means," the company said.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat who has advocated for the coal industry on this issue, issued a statement saying "I am obviously very disappointed, because, the way it stands now, it means a major loss of potential jobs."

The news was cheered by environmental groups, some of which had criticized the federal government for sending mixed messages about mountaintop mining.

"It seems that EPA Administrator (Lisa) Jackson's concern over the impacts of mountaintop-removal coal mining on human health and waterways is now translating into meaningful action," the Rainforest Action Network said. "We hope that the Spruce Mine veto is a sign that EPA is going to begin using its full authority to stop this devastating practice."

Mountaintop mining - also called "mountaintop removal" mining - accounts for about 10 percent of U.S. coal production.

Source: The Washington Post