EPA issues 'sweeping' mountaintop mining rules

Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, said the group was "deeply concerned" that EPA's action would harm the regional economy.

"This guidance ignores a much-needed balance between economic needs and environmental expectations," Popovich said.

EPA's guidance establishes a range of conductivity levels mine applications will be measured against. The standard sets a maximum level of 500 microSiemens per centimeter, which is about five times the normal level, EPA said. The goal is to protect 95 percent of aquatic life in fresh water streams in Appalachia, where this type of mining is performed.

One target of the new guidance is the "valley fills" mountaintop mining operations can create. Mine operators sometimes dump the mountain debris in nearby valleys, a practice that environmental groups say causes severe damage to the environment.

Jackson said the guidance would likely severly curtail valley fills, if not eliminate them altogether. NMA's Popovich said the guidance would apply to other types of mining operations and could also put new restrictions on construction and other commercial activities.

The new guidance doesn't affect mines now operating but will be applied to 79 permits under review at EPA and future mine applications, Jackson said.

EPA also released two studies on the effects of mountaintop mining. The studies show "significant damage to local streams that are polluted with the mining runoff from mountaintop mining removal," EPA said in a release.

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said the policy "represents the most significant administrative action ever taken to address mountaintop removal coal mining."

This story was updated at 4:25 on Thursday.