Between 150 and 200 applications for new or expanded surface coal mines, many mountaintop removal operations, are pending before the federal government. EPA spokeswoman Adora Andy said the agency does not expect problems with the overwhelming majority of permits.
The permits are issued by the Army Corps of Engineers, an agency that has been criticized by environmental groups and has been sued for failing to thoroughly evaluate the environmental impact of mountaintop removal.
Under the Clean Water Act, companies cannot discharge rock, dirt and other debris into streams unless they can show that it will not cause permanent damage to waterways or the fish and other wildlife that live in them.
Last month, a three-judge appeals panel in Richmond, Va., overturned a lower court's ruling that would have required the Corps to conduct more extensive reviews. The appeals court decision cleared the way for a backlog of permits that had been delayed until the lawsuit was resolved.
The EPA's action on Tuesday could leave those permit requests in limbo a little
The EPA said in a statement that it would be actively involved in the review of the long list of permits awaiting approval by the Corps, a signal that the agency under the Obama administration will exercise its oversight.
The EPA has the authority to review and veto any permit issued by the Corps under the Clean Water Act, but under the Bush administration it did that rarely.
Mountaintop mines in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee produce nearly 130 million tons of coal annually _ about 14 percent of the nation's power-producing coal _ which in turn generates electricity for 24.7 million U.S. customers, according to industry estimates.