COLUMBUS, Ohio - Two Ohio environmental groups asked federal regulators Monday to investigate circumstances surrounding expired pollution-discharge permits at an agency where allegations of coal-industry influence arose during a personnel flap last year.
In a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Sierra Club and Ohio Environmental Council expressed concern that the Ohio EPA may be reluctant due to political pressure to impose pollution limits adequate to protect Ohio streams.
The agency has said the permits remain legal, protective and enforceable, but environmentalists say expired permits don't incorporate updated clean water standards.
"In theory, these expired permits could go on forever, but in reality, this is greatly endangering Ohio's rivers receiving the pollutants coal mine operators can discharge under outdated permits," said Nathan Johnson of the Ohio Environmental Council.
An Associated Press investigation published last week found that at least 18 coal facilities' permits had expired, 13 since Republican Gov. John Kasich took office in 2011. The letter says a general surface-mining permit also has expired.
Dan Sawmiller of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign said the groups are turning to the federal EPA after getting inadequate answers from the Kasich administration on the recent departures from Ohio EPA of a veteran surface-water chief and the agency's state director.
"Their leadership is the only way we can protect our water from coal-mining pollution," he said.
The discharge permits spell out what pollutants each mining operation, coal preparation plant, storm water facility or coal waste storage area can release under state and federal clean water laws.
Ohio EPA spokesman Chris Abbruzzese said the agency is working with federal officials and the industry to resolve issues so new permits can be issued.
"U.S. EPA is a partner in the permit review process, and they are fully engaged and aware of the outstanding issues we are all working through to get these permits issued," he said. "In fact, we are in discussions with U.S. EPA to create a template to resolve the technical issues in these permits."
A spokesman for Kasich deferred to the EPA.
Ohio EPA's coal permitting efforts came under scrutiny last year after a 39-year agency veteran claimed Kasich's administration forced him to resign amid pressure from the coal industry.
George Elmaraghy headed Ohio EPA's Division of Surface Water, which issues permits for mining and other activities. He said in a widely publicized email to his staff that coal companies sought permits that he said would have violated state and federal laws and harmed Ohio's streams and wetlands.
He pointed to an objection by the federal EPA that's holding up one of the lapsed permits - for American Energy Corp.'s Century Mine in Belmont County - as validation of his claims.
American Energy is owned by Murray Energy, which is among the companies holding expired permits whose employees have contributed generously to Kasich's political campaigns.
Murray has said it has not sought to interfere in the process.