Speaking to the National Press Club on March 8,Jackson said the ongoing review of the permits will be an EPA priority in 2010.
The agency started scrutinizing the permits in March 2009 over concerns that refuse from mines could harm nearby water resources. The permits are issued by the Army Corps of Engineers.
“All that rubble is pushed into valleys and almost inevitably fills streams,” Jackson said. “What we're finding at EPA is that the process of filling the streams has a detrimental effect on water quality.”
Mountaintop removal mining,which involves blowing up mountaintops to get to the minerals underneath,is often the cheapest way to mine,Jackson said. It is a common mining method throughout Appalachia's vast coal fields.
The EPA has found that putting refuse in valleys,known as valley fill,can disrupt aquatic ecosystems by increasing the amount of soil dissolved in streams.
In a September letter to the Army Corps,EPA officials said more than 80 percent of 79 mining projects it studied had the potential to lower water quality in their areas. Six of the projects were located in Appalachian Ohio and 23 were in West Virginia.
The EPA has power over mining operations only if they violate the Clean Water Act or Clean Air Act,Jackson said. Otherwise,the agency is powerless to intervene.
“EPA doesn't regulate mining,” Jackson said. “Our goal is limited to ensure that these projects … do not have detrimental effects on clean water.”
Day-to-day mining operations are overseen by the Office of Surface Mining,part of the Department of the Interior. The office enforces environmentally responsible mining standards and oversees the reclamation of abandoned mine sites. It is not connected to the EPA.
Jackson said water quality,like many environmental issues,has been overly politicized. People and leaders often feel they must choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment,making progress on essential issues difficult,she said.
Jackson said environmental protection is not at odds with the economy. She said that everyone wants clean drinking water regardless of his or her political views.
“Even anti-government protesters know it's no fun to hold a tea party with contaminated water,” Jackson said.
Jackson said cleaning up the country's waterways can make the U.S. economy grow by cutting environmental costs.