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* Mining companies file suit against EPA
* Charge agency is obstructing mine permits
* EPA says action consistent with law
NEW YORK, July 20 (Reuters) - The National Mining Association, which represents most major U.S. coal mining companies, on Tuesday filed suit against the Environmental Protection Agency, saying it was unlawfully obstructing permits for coal mining operations in Central Appalachia.
EPA's delaying of mountaintop mining permits has jeopardized thousands of jobs and supply of a fuel vital to meeting national electric power needs, said the lawsuit, filed in the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia.
The NMA suit against EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contends they have circumvented requirements for public notice and comment on federal statutes and ignored calls for "peer-reviewed science" as part of "a deliberate policy to substitute agency 'guidance' for formal rulemaking."
A spokeswoman said EPA is reviewing the suit, and added: "EPA's mining guidance is fully consistent with the law and the best available science and will help ensure that Americans living in coal country don't have to choose between a healthy environment for their families and the jobs they need to support them."
Since the Obama administration came into office, the EPA has put almost 200 permits in Appalachia for surface, or mountaintop, mining on hold for "enhanced review." That sparked complaints from mining companies that it was aimed at banning the technique, in which mines are dug directly into the side of mountains and debris is discarded in springs and rivers.
"EPA has usurped authorities clearly granted to the states and other federal agencies and has used technical benchmarks for assessing water quality that are both arbitrary and capricious," the NMA suit said.
"Detailed agency guidance is not a valid substitute for lawful rulemaking based on public notice and comment," NMA president and chief executive Hal Quinn said in a statement.
"The agencies' continued abuse of the law to impose arbitrary standards on mining operations, state agencies and other federal regulatory bodies threatens the entire region with further economic misery and stagnant employment."
The NMA said EPA's action resulted in a de facto moratorium on coal mining "that is irreparably harming NMA's member companies, the welfare of coal communities and the economy."
It said a May 21 report by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Minority staff stated nearly 18,000 new and existing jobs and more than 80 small businesses are jeopardized by the policy EPA and the Corps have applied to the 190 permits still awaiting action in mid-May. (Reporting by Steve James; Editing by Gary Hill)