Last year we discussed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (USEPA) interim guidance for permitting of mountain-top mining and surface mining projects and the likelihood of revisions based on comments USEPA would receive. More than 60,000 comments later, USEPA revised and issued the Final Appalachian Mining guidance. While not legally binding, the guidance document published yesterday is intended to provide guidance to states in the Appalachian region on permitting issues related to mountain-top mining and surface mining projects. The guidance addresses the current best available science, identifies permitting strategies that comply with the requirements of the Clean Water Act (CWA) and provides assistance to USEPA staff in reviewing and approving permits issued by both the states and by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).

Mining and the NPDES Program

In particular, the guidance document seeks to ensure that mining projects are properly permitted under the requirements of the CWA's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). (A quick aside: all of the states in the Appalachian coal mining region are currently authorized by USEPA to administer the NPDES program.) The CWA and USEPA’s implementing regulations require that NPDES permits contain (1) technology-based effluent limitations, which represent the degree of control that can be achieved by point sources using various specified levels of pollution control technology; and (2) more stringent limitations, commonly known as water quality-based effluent limits, when necessary to ensure that the receiving waters meet applicable water quality standards. During reviews of the NPDES permits issued over the last few years for surface-mining projects in the Appalachian region, USEPA identified concerns about how effectively states were achieving the necessary protection of the receiving streams, and concluded that states could be more effective in gathering water quality data and documenting their permitting processes. As a result, the new guidance identifies key elements which should be evaluated by states to ensure compliance with CWA requirements. USEPA identified the following elements that should be evaluated and documented as part of the permitting process:

  • Effluent and Receiving Water Characterization - USEPA recommends that states utilize their broad authority granted under the CWA to require permittees to provide sufficient data to fully characterize their proposed discharges, and to utilize all available ambient water quality and biological data on receiving streams in permit development.
  • Reasonable Potential Evaluation - The CWA and USEPA regulations require regulation of all pollutants which have the reasonable potential to cause or contribute to an excursion above any applicable water quality standard. USEPA notes that permitting authorities should use all available guidance and resources to develop appropriate limitations to protect water quality standards.
  • Develop Appropriate Permit Limitations - Appropriate limitations may include chemical specific limitations, limitations based upon whole effluent toxicity, limitations based upon bioassessment procedures, and/or best management practices.

Future Mining Activities and Total Dissolved Solids

The issue which could potentially have the largest impact on future mining activities is the issue of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS). TDS consists of dissolved minerals such as chlorides and sulfates, and at high concentrations, TDS constitutants are toxic to aquatic organisms. In the guidance document, USEPA notes that of the Appalachian states, only Pennsylvania and Ohio have numeric criteria which specifically regulate the discharge of dissolved solids. USEPA identifies a TDS level (as measured by conductivity) of 300 μS/cm as an appropriate protective level for instream concentrations. If states properly implement regulations limiting the discharge of dissolved solids, it will likely have a dramatic impact on the ability of mining companies to obtain a discharge permit. Removal of dissolved solids from water entails significant investment, both in capital and operating costs.

Strategies for Reviewing Section 404 Permits

Surface mining activities are also regulated under Section 404 of the CWA for the discharge of dredge or fill material into the waters of the United States. Permits are issued by the USACE, with review and approval by USEPA. The guidance document provides detailed strategies for regulators in USEPA Regions 3, 4 and 5 to use in reviewing Section 404 permits and ensuring that proposed permits are in compliance with the requirements of the CWA and state requirements on water quality. Of particular interest is the discussion regarding control of dissolved solids under a Section 404 permit, where the NPDES permit issued by the State may not be sufficiently protective. This creates the possibility that future control of dissolved solids could incorporated at the federal level, as opposed to the state level.