Appalachian coal miners have been left scrambling as the National Mining Association decries the potential loss of thousands of mining jobs, as U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said the agency has sent letters to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expressing serious concerns about the practice of mountaintop mining.

The two letters reflect EPA's considerable concern regarding the environmental impact these projects would have on fragile habitats and streams, Jackson said in an EPA news release Tuesday.  I have directed the agency to review other mining permit requests.

EPA will use the best science and follow the letter of the law in ensuring we are protecting our environment, she declared.

The EPA letters are aimed at pending Corps permits regarding the Highland Mining Company's Reylas Surface Mine in West Virginia and Central Appalachia Mining's Big Branch Surface Mine in Pike County, Kentucky.

James Giattina, director of EPA's Region 4 Water Protection Division, said the agency's Region 3 Freshwater Biology Team has extensively investigated the downstream effects of mountaintop mining (MTM) and the associated valley fills (VFs). The results show that MTM and VF activities are strongly related to downstream biological impairment...

In light of the conclusions reached in the study with respect to the downstream effects of mountaintop mining, Giattina wrote, the water quality  effects demonstrated by the EPA must be taken into consideration before the [Army Corps of Engineers] Section 404 [wetlands] permit can be issued.

In a separate letter to the Corps' district engineer, EPA Region 3 Environmental Assessment and Innovation Division Director, John Pomponio, wrote that the work by Region 3's Freshwater Biology Team also establishes there is a significant degradation of the waters of the United States and a violation of the antidegradation policy, which is part of water quality standards and is intended to protect existing uses, including the aquatic life use.

The banning of mountaintop coal mining has become somewhat of a cause célèbre in the United States as actress and Kentucky native Ashley Judd conducted a national campaign last month to urge officials to ban the practice while Oprah Winfrey has expressed interest in the topic.

The Sierra Club's Carl Pope applauded Jackson for her timely decision to intervene and review the most destructive form of mining. With the bulldozers and dynamite standing by, the Obama Administration has taken decisive action to protect the streams, mountains and communities of Appalachia.

Pope claimed that nearly 2,000 miles of streams have been contaminated or destroyed by mountaintop removal coal mining, and communities throughout the region suffer from contaminated drinking water, increased flooding, and decimated landscape.

In a statement, Earthjustice claimed that the Obama Administration has stopped 100 pending mountaintop removal mining permits.

Earthjustice attorney Jennifer Chavez said, This is a strong signal that the Obama Administration is taking the right steps towards recognizing the important of sound science and the law when it comes to mountaintop removal mining. ...This is a victory for the people of Appalachia and for one of the most fundamental goals of the Clean Water Act: to prevent out entire nation's rivers, streams and lakes from being used as waste dumps.

Tuesday's EPA declaration was a major victory for an environmental lobby that had sustained a stunning setback when the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals had recently upheld the right of the Army Corps to make the final permitting decision for mountaintop mining up to the Corps.

However, National Mining Association CEO Hal Quinn warned, Jeopardizing coal mining activity through Appalachia will put more than 77,000 high-wage mining jobs at risk at a time when our nation is already battered by a deepening recession.

This action is incomprehensible at a time when the country is losing 600,000 jobs every month and households are struggling just to meet basic needs, he declared.

EPA is holding up lawful permits for operations that are responsible for providing affordable coal-based electricity for 77 million households through the East, Quinn concluded. This action is bad for American jobs and for American energy security.