The Obama administration announced a plan today for curbing the use of streamlined federal permitting for mountaintop coal mining and boosting efforts to protect rivers and streams from mining debris.

The administration stopped short of prohibiting mountaintop operations, opting instead to curb what it considers the mining technique's most environmentally damaging aspects with an agreement among the Interior Department, the Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. EPA.

"The Obama administration has serious concerns about the impacts of mountaintop removal mining on our natural resources and on the health and welfare of the Appalachian communities," said Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "Within this plan, the Obama administration is doing all it can under existing laws and regulations to curb the most environmentally destructive impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining."

The administration's biggest move modifies the corps's issuance of "nationwide permits" to preclude their use to authorize the discharge of debris into water bodies from surface-mining operations in Appalachia. Nationwide permits are allowed under the Clean Water Act for projects with "minimal cumulative environmental impacts."

By curbing such permitting, the administration is following the lead of U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Goodwin of the Southern District of West Virginia, who in March ruled that the Army Corps improperly issued such permits without preparing environmental impact assessments.

The administration filed a notice of appeal on the ruling yesterday, but Sutley said the move was a strictly procedural and not meant to indicate the administration would ultimately appeal.

The administration is also calling for greater federal scrutiny of state mining regulators and closing loopholes that allow valley waterways to be damaged by rock and soil that mining companies blast from mountaintops to expose coal deposits.

Then-Sen. Barack Obama expressed concerns over mountaintop mining during the presidential campaign last year, and both the coal industry and environmentalists have been anxious for months about how his administration might handle the issue.

In March, EPA began examining mountaintop-mining permits, putting six permits that had been issued by the Army Corps on hold and announcing that as many as 200 other permits would also be scrutinized for their environmental impacts.

That move was praised by environmentalists, along with a recent announcement that the administration was reversing a Bush-era rule that weaken restrictions on mountaintop mining near water bodies. Mountaintop mining, environmentalists say, has already smothered more than 1,200 miles of streams in Appalachia.

But EPA also recently approved 42 permits for Appalachian mining operations, including some mountaintop mines, and sided with the coal industry in opposing the rehearing of an appeals court case that could have decided whether the Army Corps has been improperly handling mountaintop permits.

Mountaintop mining produces more than 126 million tons of coal a year, providing energy for more than 25 million homes. It also directly employs more than 14,000 people in rural West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Coal advocates claim that new restrictions on mountaintop mining could jeopardize those rural jobs, but administration officials said today that the new agreement will address that by having the agencies work together to develop new economic opportunities in Appalachia, including creation of green economy jobs.

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