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West Virginia Leads Battle Against EPA Over Mountaintop Mining Regulations

As the nation follows the story of this week's deadly mining explosion in West Virginia and the attempts to rescue four trapped workers, a lesser-known battle with is taking place in this and other Appalachian states with Washington over mountaintop mining practices.

The Environmental Protection Agency has announced much tougher standards for water quality at mountaintop mining sites, effective immediately.

Doug Skaff, a Democratic state lawmaker, warns it will hurt the coal industry and cost jobs in tough economic times.

"Nobody really understands the impact that coal has here in West Virginia," Skaff said. "It gives back to the schools. It gives back to the communities. It gives back to the infrastructure of the state."

Mountaintop mining – a way to access close-to-the-surface coal seams – involves four steps: Clearing the mountain, blasting off the top of it, digging out the coal and putting the extra dirt and rocks into a so-called "valley fill." The Obama administration is particularly concerned with water that flows through those valley fills and into streams.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has said the water gets polluted with salt and other contaminant causing "irreversible damage to the physical and biological integrity of Appalachian streams."

Coal mining companies will have to adapt to the new regulations because, Jackson says, "very few valley fills are going to meet this standard."

That comes across as heavy-handed to some West Virginians.

"Let's don't penalize those people who are hard working and have jobs and just completely handcuff an industry," Skaff said.

But environmentalists say the coal industry should innovate.

"We're a talented country, full of brilliant people who can solve these problems in a way that's a win for the environment and a win for the economy," Donna Lisenby of Waterkeeper Alliance told Fox News.

Jackson says the EPA is not trying to end coal mining, just coal mining pollution. Still, the EPA just recently revoked a clean water permit for the largest mountaintop mining project in West Virginia, a permit that had been issued in 2007.

Molly Henneberg joined FOX News Channel (FNC) in 2002 and currently serves as a correspondent based in the Washington bureau. Click here for more information on Molly Henneberg