INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Three environmental groups are pressing the Environmental Protection Agency to either assume oversight of Indiana's water pollution control program or order the state to correct "serious" permitting deficiencies the groups say are allowing coal mines to illegally discharge pollution.
In a recent letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, the groups said "Indiana continues to allow patently illegal pollution discharges" more than three years after they petitioned the federal agency to review the state's general permit rules for water discharges.
The EPA confirmed Friday that it had received the letter and is reviewing it, but declined to comment further.
The Hoosier Environmental Council, the Sierra Club Hoosier Chapter and the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center contend Indiana's environmental agency has failed to properly administer and enforce that permitting system. The letter repeats their December 2009 request for the EPA to scrutinize Indiana's oversight of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.
They say Indiana has repeatedly allowed coal mines to discharge pollutants such as mercury and arsenic into waterways without proper controls and has failed to adhere to federal Clean Water Act requirements.
"The EPA must take action in a situation where our own state government has not ensured sufficient protection from coal mine water contamination," Hoosier Environmental Council executive director Jesse Kharbanda said in a statement.
He said southwestern Indiana, a region filled with coal mines, needs stronger safeguards.
Dan Goldblatt, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, said the agency "firmly disagrees" with the groups' contention that IDEM is allowing illegal pollution.
"IDEM always works closely with U.S. EPA to administer the NPDES permit in the state, and U.S. EPA approves of the way we do things," he said in a statement.
Goldblatt added that IDEM has been working with the EPA for several years to change its approach to coal mine permits and plans to open a public comment period on it by early 2014. He said the new permit system will increase "public input" on each permit application the agency receives.
The Sierra Club in June 2010 challenged Indiana's general permit for Peabody Energy's Bear Run coal mine, a sprawling site in southwestern Indiana that's the nation's largest surface coal mine east of the Mississippi River.
The group argued that Indiana should have approved an individual permit for that mine, which would have required Peabody to thoroughly study the mine's wastewater discharges and analyze nearby waterways.
Five months after the Sierra Club challenge, the EPA recommended IDEM require an individual permit for that mine. However, the state agency has allowed the mine to continue to operate under the general permit rule.
Jodi Perras, who oversees the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign in Indiana, said the state's general permit system continues "to flout the Clean Water Act."
She said the EPA needs to require the Bear Run mine and other Indiana coal mines to control toxic pollution using best management practices and monitor mines' discharges at least weekly.
"When the largest coal mine east of the Mississippi can operate without standard clean water protections, IDEM puts local waterways and the mine's neighbors at risk," Perras said.