Streamlined Permitting Process for Surface Coal Mining Suspended in Central Appalachia

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has suspended the Nationwide 21 (NWP 21) permitting process for surface coal mining in Appalachia.

A streamlined process whereby multiple mines are permitted at once, NWP 21 was intended for national activities that were demonstrated to have "minimal environmental impact." In the announcement yesterday, the Corps stated that "continuing use of NWP 21 in this region may result in more than minimal impacts to aquatic resources."

Going forward, coal companies operating in Appalachia will instead seek individual permits for each mining project that involves the discharge of "dredge" or "fill" materials, as defined by the Clean Water Protection Act, into the region's waterways. (These practices are more commonly known as "valley fills.") The individual permit process requires a case-by-case environmental assessment, closer agency review, and an opportunity for public comment.

The Corps' decision comes after it signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the U.S. Department of Interior and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in June 2009 that outlined ways to strengthen the environmental review of Appalachian surface coal mining operations. The MOU proposed to suspend NWP 21 in the short-term and to end the program after its 2012 expiration. The Corps gathered public response on the proposed changes during several meetings held throughout the region last fall. While this announcement signals that the first proposed change from the MOU has been enacted, the Corps has not made a decision on whether to end NWP 21.