Surface coal mining—the controversial procedure that levels mountaintops and pollutes streams in the quest for the nation’s dirtiest fossil fuel—will face stricter rules under the Obama administration.

Since 1982, coal-mining operations in the U.S. have been able to dump rubble in pristine streams without undergoing the typical environmental review and public comment period required under the Clean Water Act.  This morning, the Army Corps of Engineers announced plans to suspend this streamlined nationwide permit program, called NWP 21, which affects a large fraction of permits issued in Appalachia.

“By getting rid of nationwide permits, it will hopefully slow the process down and make it more open,” says Tierra Curry, a biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity in Portland, Ore.  Although she is pleased with the regulations, she says they don’t go far enough. Earlier this spring, after the administration said it had plans to scrutinize individual permits more closely, it proceeded to approve 42 of 48 new mountaintop removal permits. “That’s the most permits than have been approved in years,” she observes.

Teri Blanton of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth also welcomed the proposal, but worried that it would grandfather in some 100 pending permits in Kentucky. “Thirteen miles of stream are slated to be buried on the north fork of the Kentucky river,” she says. “I really hope they do individual permits and take the cumulative impact into account.”

The Corps will issue a final decision in the fall, following a public comment period.

In related news, the Associated Press reports that mountaintop mining operation Massey Energy, has obtained a court order barring protesters from returning to the site. Last month NASA researcher James Hansen and other protesters were arrested at a Massey processing plant in West Virginia.

Image of West Virginia mining operation courtesy rachelmolenda via Flickr