U.S. EPA is conducting further environmental analysis on 79 pending permits for mountaintop mining, the agency announced today.

The agency said the permits issued by the Army Corps of Engineers, identified in a preliminary list released today, could all potentially pose a threat to the mountain watersheds and streams, warranting further review under the Clean Water Act.

"Release of this preliminary list is the first step in a process to assure that the environmental concerns raised by the 79 permit applications are addressed and that permits issued are protective of water quality and affected ecosystems," EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in a statement.

EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers will work together in evaluating the permits to ensure Clean Water Act compliance, EPA says in a statement.

"We look forward to working closely with the Army Corps of Engineers, with the involvement of the mining companies, to achieve a resolution of EPA's concerns that avoids harmful environmental impacts and meets our energy and economic needs," the statement says.

The identified permits span four states -- Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia -- where surface coal mining is widespread but has been repeatedly criticized for its environmental impacts.

Over the next two weeks, EPA will conduct additional analysis of the listed projects, consulting with its regional offices about which permits raise "substantial environmental concerns" and warrant further review. Permits that remain on the list after the analysis will be addressed during a 60-day review process that will begin when the corps informs EPA that a particular permit is ready for review.

This is the second time EPA has put the brakes on permits for mountaintop mining. In March, EPA placed six permits that had been issued by the Army Corps on hold, requesting that the agency re-examine the effects those permitted operations could have on mountain waterways and air quality.

While the move raised hopes with mountaintop opponents who believed the Obama administration's actions would mean an end to the practice, those hopes were diminished two months later when EPA allowed 42 other permits for Appalachian mining operations to move forward.

The next month, the administration announced it would be taking a closer look at its environmental effects and ways to curtail mountaintop extraction.

As part of that initiative, EPA identified 108 pending corps permits for mountaintop mining that it had concerns with and would review to determine whether they should be revised to minimize their environmental impacts.

The remaining 29 permits were dropped from the list for various reasons since EPA began its review in June, the agency explained, including requests from applicants that their permits be withdrawn.

Opponents of the practice said today that they are cautiously optimistic about today's announcement, noting that while the administration has not pledged to end mountaintop mining, it is taking steps to minimize its environmental impacts.

"By recommending these permits not be approved, the EPA and the Army Corps has demonstrated their intention to fulfill a promise to provide science-based oversight, which will limit the devastating environmental impacts of mountaintop removal mining," said Willa Mays, executive director for Appalachian Voices.

Proponents of the practice, however, said today's announcement further demonstrates EPA's continued insistence to review permits that are supposed to be the responsibility of the Army Corps, jeopardizing the livelihoods of rural communities that depend on coal mining to feed their economies.

"No one outside of EPA -- not even the corps -- knows what criteria EPA has used to now find these 79 permits insufficient," National Mining Association Hal Quinn said in a statement. "Permit applicants do not know what conditions outside the bounds of the existing regulations they must meet to obtain a permit."

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500